Student Housing and Accommodation under Covid-19
By Clara (VP Wellbeing and Community Officer)
As sabbatical officers, we know that housing is always a key issue for students throughout the year, but the inequalities and issues within student housing have been drastically highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with sky high rents tipping students into hardship even quicker. We are living through an unprecedented social crisis as a result of COVID-19, and students and renters are being hit extremely hard.
Students usually rely on savings, family income, private debt and wages to cover rent, but many students have lost their part-time work. They are not eligible for universal credit or housing benefit, plus provisions for workers, such as the Job Retention or furlough scheme may not routinely be available, given the nature of students’ contracts. Particularly worrying are the circumstances of students with families, care leavers, students with health conditions and disabilities, international students. The diversity of student accommodation type and ownership means that there is a similar lack of uniformity in rental arrangements and the support that students can expect. In these circumstances, rent arrears may become a pressing problem for many. We have seen how students living in HMO, sharing communal kitchens and bathrooms, are in a difficult position, and we are already attending many students that, due the uncertainty about the impact of the pandemia, are unsure about what will happen to their tenancies to commence for the next academic year.
The national picture is not encouraging for students. At the beginning of lockdown, the government announced a three-month mortgage holiday for all landlords whose tenants are experiencing financial difficulties due to coronavirus, but we haven’t seen this support translated to tenants. Even if the government announced increases to housing benefit and universal credit and an 80% income guarantee for some workers many students are not eligible for them. And the new legislation and regulations that included a 3 months notice before evictions are not a hopeful measure to support students either.
Regarding universities accommodation the government published guidance on isolation in university and college halls of residence and HMOs. The guidance stated that universities and building managers of private halls needed to ensure that self-isolating students received food and medicines during the duration of their isolation. It also advised students in HMOs to discuss their circumstances with their landlord and their institution. The government guidance stressed the particular importance of ensuring that international students, care leavers and estranged students were not required to leave their halls of residence, regardless of whether their contract is up or does not cover holiday periods, or if they are unable to pay their rent. But universities are facing an unprecedented crisis, the sector highly relying on international students income and private funding, is facing losses of around £790 million from accommodation, catering and conferences. Even if the government commits to pay maintenance loans, rents accounted for 73 per cent of the maximum student finance maintenance loan, and most students are not eligible for the maximum loan.
So, what support is effectively in place for students in terms of accommodation?
The University of York decided to release students of the third term contract with no financial penalty, and has been in contact with housing providers in York to encourage them to be flexible and recognise the challenges faced by students offering penalty free early releases from tenancy agreements and offering leniency for students forced to overstay because of travel restrictions. They have also developed guidance for those students self-isolating in students halls, and they are developing targeted information regarding student tenancies.
Private accommodation providers at York have also taken some measures to support students: Boulevard has allowed students to stay an extra week for free, Student House allowed students an early realised and full refunds, Student Castle offered to ship and store students belongings, and Vita took extra measures to support the wellbeing of their tenants.
What could the University do better?
After a few weeks at relevant committees and national discussions with other unions regarding accommodation, I would like the University to consider to take further measures to support their students. Here are some of the areas and students needs that I think could be improved, and should start to consider:
- Clear communications to students in halls of issues regarding staffing, repairs, cleaning, inspections and viewings.
- Regular contact with vulnerable students, tailored to their particular needs.
- To offer all students a no-penalty early release clause from their tenancy contracts, for both this, and the next, academic years.
- Rent freeze to those students who are self-isolating in their halls.
- Detailed information about what students can expect if they are unable to pay their rent, communications regarding rent arrears, rent deferrals or rent payment plans.
- Looking at circumstances of students that need to overstay in their contracts.
- Considerations of waiving utility cost.
Nevertheless, I would like to remind that, as the NUS Campaign for a Student Safety Net highlights, support for students should be coming not only from individual institutions but from the government itself. As student unions, we will be expecting further support to come.
‘Know your rights’ London Renters Union guidance: https://londonrentersunion.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/LRU-member-support-booklet-v1.pdf
Shelter housing advice: https://england.shelter.org.uk/housing_advice/coronavirus
Unipol student housing charity: https://www.unipol.org.uk/Home
Citizens Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/
National Code on accommodation: https://www.nationalcode.org/news/information-and-advice-on-coronavirus-in-student-accommodation-for-housing-suppliers
Generation Rent: https://www.generationrent.org/
OfS on accommodation:
Sheffield SU accommodation section:
Southampton SU accommodation section: https://www.susu.org/support/housing.html?fbclid=IwAR0ARjKn8nV7l-Loz_M2amxS822KIMrwwpYSmqdFadBZ32hCFrta6WaDFoM
Government guidance for landlords: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/government-support-available-for-landlords-and-renters-reflecting-the-current-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak