We can avert a crisis for student renters – but only if we act fast

Half a million students rent rooms in university halls or privately run Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), and many more are in Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs).

A crisis is coming for them – fast. Action is needed from the higher education sector and Government now, as housing security becomes not just a social justice issue but an urgent public health one too.

Public health

The government has released initial advice on PBSA – but it’s inadequate. NUS wants to see further detail included to ensure all providers communicate clearly with their tenants:

  • Reassuring them that the provider is receiving up to date public health advice – and implementing it
  • What tenants must do about self-isolation and what support is available from the provider
  • What provision is being put in place for shared areas (whether that be gyms, cinema rooms, shared living rooms, shared kitchens etc)
  • What is happening regarding staffing, repairs, cleaning, inspections, viewings etc

Students with health conditions that make them more at risk to Coronavirus might wish to relocate to a more isolated part of their PBSA (such as a studio flat or en-suite room) – and if they want to this should be facilitated at no extra cost to the tenant.

It is also vital that students in HMOs have access to clear health information and advice – we can’t assume individual landlords are providing this. Information on what to do if a tenant or somebody in the shared household has symptoms can be found here and we want to see universities, local authorities and government do everything they can to ensure tenants have access to it. Government also needs to issue advice to landlords on the appropriateness of activities like repairs, cleaning, inspections, viewings etc.

Release from contract

There’s nothing in the government’s PBSA advice on contract obligations.

Given almost all face-to-face teaching has ceased and most physical facilities have closed, many students are eager to return to their family home. This may simply be because the academic year has practically ended, they wish to be with loved ones, they have health conditions that mean they may feel safer in their family home or because international students are navigating travel restrictions. In many cases the university is instructing/advising students to leave campus/their accommodation.

As such the Government must instruct all PBSA providers – both university owned and privately owned – to offer the option of a no-penalty release from contract to their tenants. 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. We’re calling on all providers – university and private – to do this voluntarily now.

The business model of student accommodation 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. If providers can demonstrate they need government to support them to do this, then this should happen.

These issues will also be impacting on students stuck in tenancy contracts in HMOs, and government needs to instruct landlords to also offer their student tenants the option of a no-penalty early release from contract. Again, landlords can choose to do this right now. Their deposit will need to be returned as well. If this financially impacts on a buy-to-let landlord, they have access to a mortgage holiday.

Even worse

An anomaly within the private rented sector is that the majority of new and returning students sign tenancy contracts for PBSA and HMOs far in advance of them actually taking residence. NUS has raised this issue repeatedly as a form of pressure selling.

As a result swathes of students will have already signed tenancies and paid deposits for a property that they were supposed to occupy for the following academic year. Many of these contracts start in June.

It now looks increasingly likely that the usual mass migration of millions of students across the country between June and September to start or return to university will either be off the cards, or at the very least may look highly unwise from a Public Health perspective. And plenty of people are predicting a collapse in international numbers. Students will be tied into paying rent for unnecessary tenancies.

This is unacceptable – and government needs to instruct PBSA providers and landlords to also offer their student tenants the option of a no-penalty release from such contracts. They can do this voluntarily now. If this financially impacts on a buy-to-let landlord, they have access to a mortgage holiday. Deposits will also need to be released.

Need to remain/overstay a contract

On the flipside, many students need to remain in their current accommodation and even overstay their initial tenancy contracts as a result of Coronavirus. There are international students who cannot return home due to travel restrictions, and students who do not want to return to a family home because it may put a vulnerable member of their household at increased risk. Care leavers and estranged students may also have planned to move into new accommodation with other students from June. This may no longer be viable.

The government’s advice for PBSA providers is clear – they should operate a “non-eviction” policy if students have no alternative residence. But it’s only advice – and it is unclear how this is being communicated to PBSA providers, or how it’s going to be monitored or enforced. Advice regarding those students in private sector PBSA is particularly concerning – it says that the “hall manager” should “work through local partnerships” if they can’t accommodate – and if the university or college has a nomination agreement with the private halls provider, this relationship “should be leveraged to avoid evictions”.

Universities often have little or no relationship with the private sector PBSA providers housing their students. Government must communicate their advice clearly and directly to all PBSA providers, ensure it is mandatory and monitor it. In the meantime, universities need to establish those relationships ASAP.

Overstay

Many students in the wider private rented sector may also need to remain in their property and overstay their fixed-term tenancies. NUS is calling for the government to ban all evictions, for all renters, for the duration of the crisis – but in any event universities and SUs have to work together to ensure tenants have access to a trained housing adviser and/or legal advice. University of London Housing Services have useful FAQ on their website.

Remaining or overstaying

Whilst the student finance payment for 3rd term has been confirmed we know that for most students this won’t be enough to cover their likely extortionate rent – and many students don’t even support from student finance at all, and many don’t get a payment for term 3.

Students rely on savings, family income, private debt and wages to cover rent. Given that all these forms of income are at risk there is a significant issue with rent arrears coming. And students who need to remain past their initial contract will not have budgeted to do so.

Government advice on PBSA says there should be no evictions, but doesn’t mention rent arrears. 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 work together to establish an affordable repayment plan – deferring a crisis until later down the line.

NUS is calling on government to subsidise, significantly reduce or waive entirely rents for students affected. The state has to step in – as it has in Australia.

Government intervention is going to be necessary but universities, PBSA providers and landlords can already act on many of these issues voluntarily now and they must. Coronavirus will do untold damage to the sector if we don’t act to stop student renters being thrown under the bus.

23 responses to “We can avert a crisis for student renters – but only if we act fast

  1. This is exactly the issue my son has. His HMO is completely empty, he has another lease starting in June for 20/21. He is now at home and I am on a low income. His fellow tenants have requested a waiver from the landlord but yet to receive a rrply

  2. I am in the same position. Have to pay until August 2020 even though university is closed. What can we do about this?

  3. A good first step might be to name those Universities that have not yet told students they are waiving rents. London South Bank University is one. There is much reputational risk at stake for institutions not playing fair by their students as the next intake consider their options.

  4. My Daughter is in exactly the same situation, in Lincoln – paying rent on a room she can’t travel to, or use. She is also unlikely to take up her new accommodation for the next academic year, at the start of her new arrangement, meaning she’ll pay over £2,000 in rent – for nothing. This is a shocking situation, punishing those that can least afford it, while the landlords get rich.

  5. Not only do I have to pay the £450pm rent for my daughter (she is in a 6 person) HMO until the end of June, but all 6 also have to pay £15.50 per week (yes, that’s £372 per month in total) for utilities until the end of June. The house has been empty for 2 weeks already. No utilities are being used but the company is keeping us all to the utilities contract. Shameful.

  6. I have twins who are second year students , both at home fro the past 2 weeks . I have received rent demands from both universities/landlords and i am paying utilities. My husband has chronic terminal lung disease, and i am in self isolation with coronavirus (caught working in a school , unfortunately).

    The Government needs to act to help us as we have one income and a house to run with 2 students who cannot work to support themselves.

  7. My sons contract with a Coventry landlord goes to 12th September…please all sign the petition is has less than 5000 signatures and need 1000

  8. How exactly will landlords get Rich? I’m a landlord, Barclays aren’t offering me a mortgage holiday. If I receive no income I will not even be able to pay my mortgage and will simply fall into debt. You seem, incorrectly, to think that Landlords are greedy, rich people. Not true

  9. Is there a petition I can sign for this? As I am in the same situation. I am a student who is studying in London but has had to moved out to self-isolate back at home with my family. I am still yet to pay rent for the next 5 months for my house back in London, even though me and my house mates have basically moved out now. I have asked my landlord nicely if we could come to some sort of compromise, but he will not accept. This is very frustrating!!

  10. I’m a a student landlord and I have been wrestling with this issue. I will give help to those who really are in desperate straights and delayed payment plans etc are also appropriate but simply write it off for everybody? How is that fair? Otherwise like mortgages, utility bills, car finance agreements – they still have to be paid unless someone goes bust. If I get no rent next term and/or over summer I will go bust like everybody else then there will be no home for next year’s intake. Mutual obligations to each other are complex but we must do our best to carry on honouring them. My houses are still there and my service continues with brave workmen willing to carry out repairs. Just because circumstances have changed, saying you should pay no rent is no different to an employer turning round and firing staff with no pay like Wetherspoons.

  11. We are all in a terrible position, tenants and landlords. My husband and I own 4 houses that we let, and the rent is our only retirement income. If we allow tenancies to finish early with no chance of finding tenants to replace them, we are without any income at all. The government are giving help to the employed and also the self-employed, but most people don’t realise that landlords are a separate category, and we get no help at all from the government. The tenants are protected but landlords are not. My husband and I are doing what we can to help those of our tenants genuinely financially in difficulty (such as a tenant who has lost his job) but we can’t just say to groups of tenants such as HMOs not to bother to pay us. We’re certainly not getting rich – we’re just earning enough to make a living, and where we are helping our tenants it’s depleting our limited savings.

  12. Talk about a one sided article! Pain on both sides, most paying the rent are parents who are gaining grants, help with wages etc, etc. How is deemed fair to hit the landlords with zero rent for the period? A slight reduction and or payment plans would be a fair option to those who have not received government help. Anything more is just taking advantage of the situation we ALL find ourselves in.

  13. Totally agree with previous two comments.
    We as Landlords are not being supported by the government like the employed and self employed. We have nothing to fall back on. If we get no rent we have no income. No income = going bust. No student house for the next tenants if this carry’s on longer than 3 months.
    Government guidelines are tenants should still carry on paying. Universities are still paying Loans/Grant’s.
    Are some students attempting to enrich themselves on the back of this awful pandemic?

  14. Why are they enriching themselves? Are you joking. How dare you. It has nothing to do with that. That’ just proves your lack of respect for them. Students have never had any rights. They have to sign any contract that’s placed in front of them because landlords know they need somewhere to live. Why do you choose students as your tenants I wonder?? Hhhm I think that’s obvious. Also even if they still receive their loans… it is still a LOAN and has to be paid back. They will be paying back money for a service they didn’t receive through no fault of their own either. You decided to rent homes and make money this way. You have to take the risk when people need to move out. In any other contract a person can give 1 months notice. A student can’t apparently. Why not? Why are they treated differently. Why should they be responsibly for paying your mortgage when they are not living there anymore and have physically removed themselves and all their belongings form that property. Their maintenance loan is a LOAN they have to pay it back still. Where are their rights.
    I can imagine you wouldn’t like to be paying for something that you are getting or receiving.

  15. In reply to Jen above, students sign an assured shorthold tenancy agreement much like any other person renting a property – its a fixed period of time and 1 months notice is not required. You or I would sign the exact tenancy agreement and be expected to pay for the full contract period, regardless of if we left or not. Whilst these are unprecedented times is it really right for students to just refuse to pay their contract, pushing the people who have a house or two as a retirement income into debt? Yes, students do get a loan – and the loan is to cover expenses such as rent. Student Finance England have already said that they will be releasing the full amount of loans and grants as normal – they wont be cut because some students have gone home. They still have bills to pay and wont be able to just refuse to pay because they no longer require a service, i.e, a car or mobile phone contract. https://england.shelter.org.uk/housing_advice/private_renting/private_rented_housing_for_students

    Utility companies are not going to stop requesting payments because our students have moved out. The broadband contract wont stop and we have to continue paying. I still have to pay the estate agent a monthly fee to maintain the property, even though it is now empty. I still have to pay my bills at home with my small state pension.

    Its also worth noting that most universities have not closed down. Students still need to study, albeit it might not always be face to face. My student house is their safe place.

  16. A solicitor could argue that under tort law the landlord is now unable to provide accommodation
    that complies with the health and safety distancing needed for a group in a house share, thus nullifying the tenancy agreement.

    In Brighton the landlords and agents will hold the students / parents liable for ‘loss of
    rental income’ so you need to find a legal loophole in the HMO contract
    Worth a try what?

  17. A solicitor could argue that under Tort law the landlord is now unable to provide accommodation
    that complies with the health and safety distancing needed for a group in a house share, thus nullifying the tenancy agreement.

    The landlords and agents will hold the students / parents liable for ‘loss of
    rental income’ so find a legal loophole in the HMO contract.
    Worth a try what?

  18. You will get a payment holiday…you can’t expect students to pay when they are not there. Alternatively sell your asset! You should have business insurance or such like. I’m sorry but you can’t expect everyone else to suffer and not yourself.

  19. Yes one months notice on a rolling contract after a tenancy period has ended, the same with most contracts, students are treated no different, jumping to conclusions there. In my experience it’s the parents who pay the rent and those parents are getting government help so in the majority of cases the chain has to continue….government helping parents via grants and wage help, parents continue to pay rent, landlords continue to pay mortgages/feed their families and the banks continue to lend. Where extreme circumstances exist, a payment plan would be helpful and/or a discount, to simply walk away from contracts is just unfair. What if some students want to stay in houses? Would it be fair to tell those students to leave under the circumstances of needing to isolate? We all dislike to pay for something we are not using, there could be many examples of this but common sense is needed here and not just a selfish outlook, there are many consequences to simply not pay. Landlords have responsibilities to pay mortgages and students/parents have to pay the rent for the fixed period they took the house on for, its not anyone’s fault this Coronavirus pandemic started.

  20. i am in the same situation, although I am back in Lithuania ( my home country) in lockdown and cannot even physically be in the room that I am renting in London, meanwhile the agency which represents my landlord is telling me the only way for me to stop paying rent is to find a replacement but most of my stuff is in that room back in London and I don’t want strangers handling my stuff. So I have no idea what to do

  21. Frustration is the correct word here. Look up the “Frustration Ruling” and you will see you have a good case for setting your tenancy agreement aside. My son has 3 months remaining on his student tenancy but will never return as the uni is now shut. I tried to negotiate with the landlord but was told to get lost & pay up. I am now withholding rent based on the frustration ruling & am happy for this to be challenged in court if need be.

  22. In response to Bill, the Covina 19 outbreak does not make the contract impossible, maybe more difficult for some but that would not make the contract being classed as frustrated. Your giving very bad advice there and could cause others to spend a lot on lawyers etc and also give the wrong idea to many people. Seems many are just wanting to try their luck with this and keep money in their pockets, have you not received government help with your situation? The government advice is to pay rents as they fall due and discuss with the landlord if there are difficulties. I see you have had no luck with reaching agreement with the landlord in your case but it depends on what both see as reasonable. As a landlord I’d give payment plans to people who haven’t had help, even a discount if necessary but to those that won’t pay I will press on with the legal routes as necessary and expect those costs to be recovered also. Depends on each case and who is up for the hassle and extra costs involved and we know that those costs could double, treble or even more once lawyers have to be involved if the joint and several contracts are deemed as one and too great an amount for a small claims court. Wrongfully applying frustration to this will also have severe consequences and breach of contract. I’d seek advice first before suggesting it in blogs.

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