We here at UoGSU know that right now so many people are having a tough time. The world has changed so much in the past month that it can be hard to keep a track of who is getting help and who might need more support. I know as Welfare Officer that there are hosts of people who need more help right now as this global crisis grows. As an organisation that works tirelessly to support students, I believe student renters need more help from the Government.
That's why I took the step last week to write to all 3 local MPs in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury to call for the help that's needed. You can see the letter I sent below:
Dear Alex, Laurence and Richard,
I am writing to you as the elected Welfare Officer of the University of Gloucestershire’s Students’ Union, as we are very concerned about the impact that the COVID-19 epidemic will have on student renters in your constituency. The Coronavirus has caused the closure of our campuses, international students are navigating travel restrictions and many students have chosen or been forced to return home as a result of the crisis. However, many students also have no option but to remain in their current rented accommodation but may struggle with their rent payments. For all students the epidemic will pose major challenges for them as tenants. Even those who have left your constituency are still being held liable for their rent when they may well be struggling to make ends meet due to losing jobs in the gig economy.
The government has released initial advice for Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) providers – but it’s inadequate. For instance, there is nothing in the advice referring to contract obligations or rent arrears. In order to protect our students during the epidemic we, along with the National Union of Students (NUS) and students around the UK, have five clear asks of universities, private sector PBSA providers and student landlords in the Private Rented Sector:
- Landlords must stay updated with and implement best practice public health guidance, communicate clearly with tenants and provide maximum support
- Every student landlord must offer a no-penalty early release from tenancy contracts for the current and next academic year
- End all evictions, for all renters, for the duration of the crisis
- All renters who are financially impacted by the Coronavirus must have their rents subsidised, significantly reduced or waived entirely for 6 months
- Suspend all rent increases for the next 12 months
We have provided more information on each of these asks below. All of these asks can be enacted right now voluntarily by individual landlords and accommodation providers, and we are asking for you to support our lobbying efforts in any way you can. However, we are also asking the UK government to help ensure these asks are met universally and your support in seeking action from the UK government would be greatly appreciated.
In addition to the government advice for student accommodation providers MHCLG have also now published advice for all landlords regarding their activities such as repairs, inspections, viewings etc. It is essential that landlords and accommodation providers follow the relevant public health advice and ensure the safety of their tenants whilst fulfilling essential duties. We hope you can ensure that local landlords and accommodation providers are aware of and following this advice.
The government’s current advice for students is that they stay in their current residence and do not move residence during the lockdown. Prior to this coming into force, our university had been suggesting students may wish to leave campus and their accommodation in order to return home. This means that many students will not be in their accommodation for the third term of the academic year, and as such it is completely unfair to require these students to pay rent for that term.
We believe that universities, private sector PBSA providers and student landlords must offer their tenants the option of a no-penalty release from their contract or rent obligations. If a student wishes to be released from their contract and rent has already been taken for forthcoming months, it must be refunded along with their deposit. The business model of housing students is based on university physically occurring. The fact it has come to an end early this year is part of the risk that must be absorbed by accommodation providers – not by students.
Furthermore, the majority of new and returning students, anomalously in the private rented sector, sign tenancy contracts many months in advance of them actually taking residence. As a result, many of our students will have already signed tenancies and paid deposits for a property that they planned to live in for the next academic year, with many of these contracts starting in June/July. NUS has raised this issue in the past with the UK government and the Competition and Markets Authority as a form of ‘pressure selling’.
If it is not possible for students to relocate en-masse due to lockdown procedures and/or the next academic year of university being delayed as a result of Coronavirus, then the government must ensure all students are able to access a no-penalty release from such contracts. If this financially impacts on a buy-to-let landlord, they have access to a mortgage holiday. If a student wishes to be released from their contract and rent has already been taken for forthcoming months, it should be refunded along with their deposit.
We also have many students who need to remain in their current accommodation and even overstay their initial tenancy contracts as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. There are international students who cannot return home due to travel restrictions, students who do not want to return to a family home because it may put a vulnerable member of their household at increased risk and care leavers and estranged students who do not have alternative accommodation to return to.
We are also worried that a number of students who either left their student properties in haste or in the hope to return before the end of their tenancy could be faced with the unhelpful choice of either paying additional rents, paying landlords a fee to store their items or risking fines and public health to travel back to properties over summer. Whilst this is only a small, technical point I’m sure you can see the complexity of the issues facing students across the country and in your constituency over the coming weeks and months.
The government guidance for universities and PBSA providers is very clear on the issue of evictions. In addition, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government confirmed a holistic ban on evictions for at least 3 months. We understand that these measures now protect students renting via License Agreements which many in student accommodation do.
We would like to see government go further in ensuring protection for tenants in the longer term. In the meantime, we hope you can join us in urging local student landlords and accommodation providers to follow this new legislation and government advice and not evict their tenants.
Whilst the student finance payment for next term has been confirmed we know that for most of our students this will not be enough to cover their extortionate rents. Students rely on savings, family income, private debt and wages to cover rent. Given that all these forms of income are at risk, or in the case of the latter unacceptable to rely on, there is a significant issue with rent arrears on the horizon. The government advice on PBSA does not mention rent arrears or any problems that might emerge with students not being able to afford their rent.
Meanwhile plans regarding the wider private rented sector are supposed to ensure that renters will be able to build up arrears during the crisis without facing immediate eviction but suggests that at the end of this period, landlords and tenants are supposed to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan – deferring a crisis until later down the line. We want government to subsidise, significantly reduce or waive entirely rents for tenants whose finances have been impacted by Coronavirus for 6 months. Indeed, given that many students have now been instructed to stay put, when they may have moved out and taken the option of a release from contract, this should be done pre-emptively.
In addition, to prevent these crises being exacerbated we want to see a freeze on all rent increases for the next 12 months. Again, accommodation providers and landlords can currently do this voluntarily.
In conclusion, we hope that you will support our campaign to #SaveStudentRenters and ensure that student renters receive the support they need during this epidemic.
It would be very helpful if, in addition to our above requests, you would promote NUS’s open letters to landlords on your social media platforms.
You should have received of a briefing from NUS by now on this issue and the actions you can take at a national level. If not, or if you want further information, please email Taidgh.Pledger@nus.org.uk.
Paul Blomfield MP and the APPG for Students is also co-ordinating a joint, cross-party letter to government on these issues and we would appreciate your support for that letter.
If there is any more information that would be helpful at this time, please do let us know. We understand that this will be a particularly difficult time for many of your constituents and we greatly appreciate any support you are able to offer.
Student Union Welfare Officer 19/20