It’s been almost a year since the Conservative government announced its plans to deliver a Renters Reform Bill in England in the Queen’s Speech.
Now the Renters Reform Coalition has formally launched to lobby the government to get the Bill moving – and ensure it truly overhauls our broken housing system in the interests of renters.
The coalition is made up of 19 leading organisations supporting private renters, including national housing charities, renter unions, advice centres and think tanks – and NUS is proud to be a founding member.
Someone else’s problem
Student renters have for too-long been ignored by government, and exploited by landlords. An affordability crisis in Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) prices many out of the ”residential experience” and pushes student renters into economic hardship to the detriment of their education and their welfare.
The average rent in PBSA in 2018/19 swallowed up a whopping 73% of the maximum available maintenance loan for an English undergraduate studying away from home (a package which most students don’t receive) and average rents rose by 31.3% in the six years prior.
Both universities and housing associations (nominally not-for-profits who should be delivering models of social housing) utilise PBSA as a naked income generator to cross-subsidise other activities. Globally, low-interest rates and a counter-cyclical boom in student numbers since 2010 has brought ever-larger swathes of international investors into the sector and enormous for-profit PBSA providers continue to grow – all seeking big returns.
When Goldman Sachs and the Wellcome Trust sold iQ Student Accommodation to Blackstone in 2019 for £4.66 billion, it became the largest ever private real estate transaction in UK history. Put simply, student renters are big money.
Many universities have signed dodgy PFI-style deals or sold off their accommodation portfolio entirely. Whilst chatter of student engagement and the Civic Mission abounds, universities have largely abdicated their responsibility for questions of student housing in their local area and exclude students from decision-making. It’s an affordability crisis that rips off students and government. But it isn’t the only problem.
Supply and demand
There is a lack of both PBSA and “off-street” Private Rented Sector (PRS) accommodation that is truly accessible for disabled students. As the fire at The Cube just over one year ago highlighted, there remain unknown numbers of students residing in high-rise PBSA still covered in flammable cladding. Conditions in the homes where students have been expected to basically never leave throughout the pandemic are often appalling, with disrepair, pests, damp and poor insulation rampant and interactions with landlords often grim.
Students have the same lack of rights and housing security as all renters in England do – indeed students renting university-managed accommodation via License Agreements are afforded even fewer. This lack of rights is epitomised by the existence of the Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction process which leaves all renters lacking housing security and fearful of enforcing the little rights they do have.
Students are the only demographic in the Private Rented Sector who are pressured, en-masse, into signing tenancies up to nine months in advance of moving into their home – leaving them regularly trapped into rent liabilities and unable to change their mind. All these issues predate the pandemic, but they have all been sharpened as a result of it.
No help coming
Student renters have been excluded from every (inadequate) financial support mechanism put in place for renters through the benefits system. Thousands have been trapped paying rent for accommodation both last and this academic year which they don’t want, need or shouldn’t access due to public health considerations. Many had been locked-in to tenancies for the 2020/21 academic year before Covid-19 had even been identified by scientists.
Our Coronavirus and Students Survey Phase 2 found that by July 2020, 20% of student renters had fallen into arrears. If we took the conservative estimate that there are 1.2 million student renters, then that would mean there were 240,000 students behind on their rent at the end of the last academic year. We are yet to see how students will be hit by the forthcoming evictions crisis which the government has only postponed through its makeshift emergency reforms to the evictions system.
It is little wonder that we are heading for the largest wave of student renter activism since the 1970s. We are inviting students and students’ unions to help shape and lead our work with the Renters Reform Coalition and help channel the abundance of grassroots energy into securing both immediate wins and long-term reforms through the Bill. In particular, with the government already committed to ending Section 21 “no-fault” evictions – and by proxy introducing indefinite tenancies – we have a golden opportunity through the Bill to follow the path of Scotland in allowing renters to give 28 days’ notice to exit their tenancies too.
And for the wider sector, the idea that Student Renters Deserve Better should cease to be a point of contention. If even the National Residential Landlord Association is able to call for additional financial support for renters and accept some tenancy reform, why can’t the higher education sector? The promised Renters Reform Bill is the first major opportunity since the 1980s to radically re-shape private renting in England, and support for it would represent a major contribution both to a good student experience and the wider civic agenda for everyone else that rents in a university town or city. Universities should join students and their SUs toward seizing the opportunity.