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War against the HMOs?

Friends is the most repeated show in television history. Whenever there is nothing on, we can all agree to engage in the most common form of televised procrastination and settle down and watch a nice episode of Friends, the show that for ten years sometimes successfully – often hilariously – defined the sit-com genre. Last Tuesday, after somehow finding new laughs in an early episode I must have seen 4 times already, I felt prompted to ask my house-mate: why was there never a successful British Friends?

“We just don’t do sit-coms” was the quickly decided answer. But I think there’s more to it than that: the fact is, if Friends were set in Britain, airing on BBC3, all we’d see would be six irresponsible adults approaching their thirties and (shock horror!) still renting.

But “how,” I hear you gasp, “does this hilarious and insightful anecdote lead in to a serious article about Houses in Multiple Occupancy, and the recent debate with Brighton city council over their future?!”

Well, our Union and student politics seem so interested in other “important” political issues that Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs), despite its catchy three letter abbreviation, has been seen as an unimportant side issue of the student experience – i.e., not as crucial as efforts to stop students drinking Coke. (But surely during our time in university we can develop a more socially responsible attitude against marketisation and learn not to drink coke a cola because of their disgraceful human rights record?)

Adopting good lifestyles shouldn’t stop when we leave university, so why should HMOs? As soon as we get our degrees why are we expected to escape our “student ghettos,” move back home, get a job and start scraping for our own house?

Before I hear you egged-on Brighton & Hovers start shouting about littering students bringing your area and precious property values down, I’d like to point out there are many social benefits to HMOs. Living with friends is the first experience most young people have living outside of their family home. Why should this experience be limited to students? Witness East Slope in fresher’s week, when eight hundred students wake up to find their mums not there anymore. They must learn independence and how to look after themselves. Students might have messy houses, and East Slope on a Friday night might be a bit loud, but people living there place value on other things. Most importantly, living with friends gives you the experience of being a member of a community of equals, sharing responsibilities with each other; a consensual attitude develops to deal with any inevitable conflicts.

‘Students might have messy houses, and East Slope on a Friday night might be a bit loud, but people living there place value on other things’

Living with friends brings with it automatic social capital that being an individual living alone, waiting to bring a family into your home doesn’t. You have an already developed support network and opportunities to interact with others when you need it.

Our society in Britain places too much emphasis on owning a home; to have made it in the world you need to own your own semi-detached house, where you live with your traditional family. If you really want to make it, you should try to own a second home – they apparently go up in value (does the house get any better with the higher price tag?), and you can then rent your second house out to those unfortunates who don’t have their own home: perhaps a group of young people living with friends. This sort of attitude has many destructive social outcomes and, as students, we have the opportunity to change our generation’s view and prevent it becoming ingrained. Basing so much value in home ownership is demeaning to those who choose to rent, creating a social class divide.

This in turn allows landlords to take advantage of tenants seen as an underclass, charging them higher rents without upholding uniform standards. This creates a negative cycle whereby renters are stuck renting unable to save up for the home ownership that they increasingly value, thus strengthening the position of the homeowners. Meanwhile the renting class are forced to work harder and harder getting themselves more in debt, and spending less money on themselves, simply to try and get that Holy Grail: the mortgage down payment. Our current economic woes come down in large part to this in building our economy on complex but abstract systems all designed to buy houses in the west and then let them go up in value as if this makes us somehow richer in the real world.

By using negative terms such as studentifacation, student ghettos, and squatters, the home owning interests seek to marginalise those who don’t conform to this ridiculous concept in the same way we make fun out of the old man at the allotment for not going off to Tesco’s for his carrots.

Even the positive debate on building new eco-friendly towns suffers this bias. What type of houses do they want to build? You’ve guessed it! Semi-detached homes for the young professional and family. But in the future mindful of the dangers of over population, past housing problems and limited recourses this type of living will become less popular or available only to upper middle classes, our definition of the family is changing from the heterosexual ideal of the past mum, dad, 2.4 children and a dog to one based on a support network of friends and biological family.

If we are so committed to resisting marketisation of our culture and if we truly want to take the high minded view that as students we have a special role in shaping our generations views then we should place support of HMOs at the heart of our views on society. Students should join with their community to call for rent control quality HMOs and better tenant’s rights.

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