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.
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.
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.
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.