Coronavirus causes accommodation crisis

Meg Howe explores the current uncertainty regarding student tenants' rights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Meg Howe
29th March 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the uncertain times surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, students renting private and university owned accommodation have been left confused, with a looming accommodation crisis hanging over their heads.

In the past couple of weeks, there have been questions raised regarding the rights of tenants, and actions that will be taken by the landlords and the government.

The National Union of Students (NUS), have stated that there is an “imminent crisis”, with some students facing evictions and some landlords refusing to release students already “pressured” into signing contracts for the next academic year.

Eva Crossan Jory, the NUS Vice President Welfare, has tried to shed light on these pressing issues, and has tried to give students the advice they need to ensure they have the right support. With over half a million students renting University owned accommodation or accommodation within the private sector, this crisis is not small. Jory states that housing security is now a social justice and public health issue, for which the government should now take responsibility.

The government has issued no advice regarding contract obligations

The government has issued no advice regarding contract obligations, leaving it down to the individual landlord or accommodation provider to release their own statement. Those landlords who have not issued statements are being hounded by tenants who want support regarding the issues. The fact that there will most probably be no influx of student migration between June and September, means that many students could be stuck paying for accommodation that they will not be using.

The NUS state that the government and state should step in, to help and guide students with legal advice, as they have done in Australia.

For students living in University-owned accommodation at Newcastle, the University has stated that those who have returned home, have emptied their room and returned their keys will be released from your contractual liability at the end of this academic term on 29 March. If you have left University-owned accommodation but have not been able to empty the room of your belongings, you will not be charged for the final academic term. No further fees will be deducted and the student will be unable to return to the accommodation even if the lock-down is terminated and the university library and other services reopen. However, will all campus-based teaching and assessments suspended for the remainder of the academic year, students who choose to suspend their accommodation contracts early like this will not be at a disadvantage. Students who have been unable to empty the room but who have left Newcastle will also not be charged for the final academic term, but it is uncertain when they will be able to return to collect their belongings because the current lock-down may be extended or further restrictions may be imposed.

Private accommodation providers Unite Students and Liberty Living have set a national precedent by issuing statements to their tenants stating that they will help students in need during this uncertain time. Both providers have also said that tenants can be released of all contract obligations if they “clear their rooms before 10 April 2020”. They have also offered to extend tenancies for students unable to get home “at no extra charge”. This has led to tenants putting pressure on many other accommodation providers to follow suit.

While this can be seen as a step in the right direction, many students are still worried about how this will be conducted. Speaking to tenants of both Unite and Liberty Living, a common concern regarded moving belongings and emptying rooms, as students who have returned to their family to self-isolate may not reside in the accommodation for the remainder of the academic year and yet still have possessions there. One student living in Liberty Quay, says: “I thinking giving students refunds for their third semester is a good idea”, which is a common opinion amongst many tenants. A Newgate Court (owned by Unite) tenant agreed, and says: “I feel a little better, knowing that we have options, and I was worried about paying for a room I would not use – I would move rather save this money to help my family in this time”.

Despite this thankful attitude towards the accommodation providers, the Liberty Quay tenant raised concerns by saying: “I am unsure about when we will need to have packed our things”. This is a common concern and since these students are out of contract and no longer paying rent, some may be worried about how this will impact their right to keep their belongings in their rooms.

While the country remains in lockdown, and travel is restricted, concerns are raised as to whether students who have gone home will legally be allowed to return to Newcastle to retrieve all of their belongings. Another student from Newgate Court returned home before the statement was issued regarding rooms being emptied before 10 April, and now is unable to return to Newcastle to collect them due to the travel ban. As lockdown is due to be reviewed on 14 April, students may not have the chance to return to Newcastle to collect their belongings before 10 April.

Downing Students, which in Newcastle operates Verde and The View, currently has no plans to cancel any contracts or process refunds for students who have chosen to depart early, and has a very high level of occupation.

Portland Green Student Village remains open and functioning as normal.  As they remain open and, at this current time, are able to provide all services to residents, tenancy agreements remain valid and active, and as such they will be collecting rent as normal. Should there be cases with exceptional circumstances, they will consider them under normal cancellation policy and booking terms and conditions.

At present, The Student Housing Company (who own Knoll Court), CRM Students (who operate Urban Study) and true Student are still expecting students to pay their third terms' rent. There is concern among tenants, however, that many accommodation providers are choosing to restrict security and management hours in accordance with government guidelines, which limits the access that residents have to services such as postal collection and maintenance.

The National Union of Students is among the organisations lobbying for accommodation providers to cancel rent charges. NUS vice president for welfare, Eva Crossan, said: "We want to see student accommodation providers release students from their contracts at no penalty, when students' welfare or education is being significantly impacted as a result of coronavirus."

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AUTHOR: Meg Howe
Passionate History student and Educator

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