Desperate students face severe housing shortage

Around a million students about to start the new university year in France have been trying to find a suitable place to live.

The new government has committed itself to a big expansion of student housing, but years of promises by state, regional and student-support authorities have not been fulfilled and there is a severe lack of places in university residences.

Meanwhile, a consumer organisation has filed complaints against 13 agencies that it alleges are illegally selling lists of addresses to students desperately seeking to rent in the private sector.

In 2004 a report by member of parliament Jean-Paul Anciaux set out a plan to construct or rehabilitate 12,000 student housing units a year in the course of the decade to 2014, but the objectives have not been met.

Of the 40,000 new units and 56,000 renovations envisaged by the end of 2012, only 22,600 have been built and 31,000 renovated.

Just 8% of students can benefit from housing provided by the state agency responsible for student accommodation, the national student support centre CNOUS and its regional centres, the CROUS.

During a visit in August to a new Paris CROUS student residence, Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso spelled out the measures the new government was taking on student housing.

In line with the promise of socialist President François Hollande during his electoral campaign in the spring these included construction of 40,000 new units over five years, for which a working group of the higher education and housing ministries, social partners and local operators has been set up.

Fioraso criticised the previous government for its inaction and said she would speed up the €5 billion (US$6.27 billion) campus plan announced in 2007 by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, for a further 13,000 units – which she claimed had “not yet led to any delivery or the laying of a single foundation stone”.

She said that under the new construction programme her ministry would work closely with regional authorities, which had been “absent from the system of governance set up by the previous government even though they contributed substantially to the funding”.

But while waiting for the promised expansion to take place, about a million students must now find somewhere to live at the start of the new academic year.

Of the 2.2 million young people enrolled in French higher education it is estimated that 700,000 are living with their parents, 165,000 have places in CROUS university residences and 315,000 stay in privately run residences.

The rest must look for a home in the private rental sector, where bedsits are often small and rundown and rents high. Students’ organisation FAGE calculates that housing costs represent more than 45% of students’ budgets.

Many students desperately seeking a suitable place resort to operators who, according to consumer organisation UFC-Que Choisir in a report published this week, are illegally selling lists of addresses supposedly available to let.

Following its inquiry carried out in Paris and 10 other university towns, UFC-Que Choisir has filed complaints against 13 agencies, alleging bad practice.

Alleged offences include operators charging for the lists in advance; giving addresses no longer available for letting; and masking their true activity – simply selling the lists – so customers thought they were genuine estate agents.

The agencies charged about €200, and up to €450 in Paris, without the student having any guarantee of successfully finding a rental, said UFC-Que Choisir. They carried out no individualised research service, with the lists largely consisting of addresses taken from local newspapers and giving only vague details of the properties.