Universities UK chucks student tenants under the bus as the Renters (Reform) Bill returns

When asked about the prospects of the long-delayed Renters (Reform) Bill returning to Parliament around the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities secretary Michael Gove couldn’t have been more non-committal.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Last week Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House, notably failed to include the bill’s second reading in her announcement of business for the remainder of the current parliamentary session.

So all sorts of stakeholders were surprised when it emerged earlier this week that Rishi Sunak himself had insisted at Cabinet on Tuesday that he wanted to get the bill through after all – responding to a coalition of 30 charities that the day before had urged him to avoid any more “avoidable hardship and suffering”.

That brings landlords – and universities’ – objections to the way in which the bill might impact the student housing market back into sharp focus.

The headline proposal of ending “no fault” evictions is seen as a key way to avoid tenants being threatened with eviction if they dare cause a fuss over standards, safety or repairs.

There’s also a new ombuds for disputes, and in addition one of the signature proposals in the bill is to end “fixed term” tenancies for private housing altogether – putting all homes, including off-street student housing, onto periodic (open-ended) contracts instead. Halls – both university and private – would be exempt.

In addition the bill proposes to enable tenants to then cancel any periodic contract on two months’ notice – including the ability to reclaim any rent paid in advance. That’s in part to enable tenants to avoid being trapped and required to pay a full contract’s worth of rent when their landlord fails to play ball.

Better rights for students

These two new rights would be crucial for students. On the issue of tenancy length, DLUHC has thus far said that most students will continue to move property at the end of the academic year – but that for some, perhaps because they have local ties or a family to support, the security of having a home is crucial:

It is important that students have the same opportunity to live in a secure home and challenge poor standards as others in the PRS. Therefore, students renting in the general private rental market will be included within the reforms, maintaining consistency across the PRS.

There’s also bags of evidence that the right would be incredibly helpful for international students who were attracted to the UK because of the two-year graduate route work visa, only to find obtaining housing exceptionally difficult.

That right to cancel is also seen as vital for students by some – solving a decades-long problem of students being tied into a property as early as September for the following September, only to find that a fall-out with other housemates or a change of plans related to academic performance, illness or other circumstance leaves them on the hook for 12 months’ rent.

Supply or demand?

The problem is that the assumption of the landlord lobby and Universities UK is that the two rights would cause a reduction in supply because of the way in which they would potentially break the link between fixed-term contract lengths and the academic year.

The shaky “evidence” for this always routes back to this research on purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) and student housing in Scotland, which argues:

It is widely accepted across the sector that, because of the new tenancy and the experience of Covid-19, private landlords are now moving away from that market and looking for more long-term tenants with less chance of void periods. Initial qualitative evidence from Glasgow (Gibb, 2021), as well as from sources interviewed in chapter 3, suggests that this shrinking of the student HMO sector is putting upward pressure on rents.

But even if we set aside the difficulty of disentangling Covid, the rise in short-term lets (ie Airbnb) and the impact of interest rates on mortgaged-to-the-hilt landlords from the changes to tenancies, the “widely accepted” claim here looks like it’s on shaky ground – and certainly some distance from demonstrable cause and effect.

Less discussed is Scotland’s whopping increases in international enrolments – between 2019/20 and 2021/22 alone there was a 50 per cent increase – that’s almost 30,000 more students looking for beds, and we’d have to assume it’s grown further since.

To tackle the issue in the bill, Universities UK’s briefing for MPs proposes an exemption from open-ended tenancy agreements for all student housing in the private rented sector – which would pretty much mean the status quo, affording everyone else in society those two new rights while students are trapped in tenancies.

Any ideas?

What’s astonishing is that is that Universities UK doesn’t even mention the students and graduates (other than PT ones) who obviously need security of tenure, doesn’t discuss the early renting trap that students are tied into and doesn’t even attempt to find another way to tackle the huge power imbalance between landlords and student tenants.

It could easily have set out a range of problems and vulnerabilities faced by students and called on government to address them in other ways – but nothing.

It’s not at all clear why one group of citizens should have less rights over their housing on the basis that there is a collective housing crisis and soaring demand thanks largely to universities’ own recruitment practices.

But even if we accepted that, we might have imaged UUK would think of other ways to protect student tenants – perhaps via a new Code of Practice (even the NRLA managed to come up with that) and/or fast tracking their complaints to the ombuds in recognition of their weaker position in the market – or even a funded legal advocacy service for student housing issues.

Alternatively, the right to evict at the end of the academic year might have been given to student landlords while keeping students’ right to cancel on two months’ notice. Landlords would lose a bit of certainty, but would students gain a bit of right not to be locked in. That would have been a fairer balance.

It might also have found ways to limit rent increases between tenancies for students in any compromise – a key way in which landlords are able price gouge when university recruitment swells demand.

But there’s none of that in there. Instead Universities UK effectively frames all full-time students as carefree 18-21 year olds, barely mentions the raft of evidence that shows how they’re mistreated by landlords, ignores the needs of graduate route international students that universities have piled in, and trades off students’ right to not be trapped on the basis of the sector and the state’s complete failure to indulge in any planning for the housing needs of students the sector is recruiting.

The need for an incoming government to take the student housing sector seriously – treating it much more like the social housing sector – has never been greater.

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