Eva Crossan Jory, NUS Vice President (welfare), writes about the housing crisis for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we hurtle towards a student rent arrears crisis, we desperately need support now rather than when it is too late. NUS Students and Coronavirus Survey (April 2020) showed that 80% of students are worried how they will manage financially as a result of coronavirus & 72% of students are worried about their ability to pay rent during COVID-19.
There is an affordability crisis in housing, which has only been exacerbated by the current pandemic. While universities and some private providers have let students out of contracts earlier to ensure they didn't have to pay for rooms they were no longer living in, this is not the case for most of the 500,000 students who are living within the private rented sector.
This pandemic highlights what we have been advocating for so long: the need for better student maintenance support, the need for support for student workers, the vast inequality that exists within education and the exploitation of student renters. These issues have not and will not go away any time soon without genuine change enacted by the UK Government.
As we call for students to be let out of housing contracts this year, we need to also talk about what will happen to those who have signed contracts for the next academic year. These contracts will often unfairly begin in June leaving many students paying rent for rooms they are not in and cannot get to. The early signing of these contracts is a direct effect of the pressure selling so many students are subject to by landlords and estate agents targeting student renters. Students, often pressured into signing contracts 10-12 months early in order to reserve houses near their universities that are actually affordable have long been exploited by this constant pressure selling. The NUS have already voiced concerns about this practice to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and are calling for an end to pressure selling now.
In the context of the crisis, we must ask what happens if international students are unable to travel back to the UK next academic year to study. Will they have to still pay rent on a property they have never lived in? What happens if tenants are unable to move out of a property because they are self-isolating? We desperately need more guidance on these issues. The current pandemic means students will most likely not be allowed or will be unable to move into these houses this summer, even if the government do lift restrictions we have no reassurance in-person teaching will take place this September. It would be unjust to force students to pay for university accommodation when their university is not even open for them.
The government has announced mortgage holidays with some nod to rent holidays but only if your landlord agrees- this relies on the benevolence of landlords which is not something we’ve seen much of within the student rented sector. However these agreements often seem to involve the burden being placed on the renters as they will simply accrue large rent arrears which most tenants, and especially students, will not be able to pay back. Government should do the right thing and allow for rent cancellations during this crisis.
In Scotland, tenants rights are better developed than in the rest of the UK: you are able to leave your contract with 28 days notice, meaning that those who cannot afford to commit to contracts and those who may not be able to move into rooms near their universities will be able to get out of these contracts without too much bother. In the rest of the UK this is not possible. This once again raises the point that if this is possible in Scotland, surely this is practically possible in the rest of the UK. The only thing stopping it from happening is a political choice of the current government.
What the issue of rent arrears within student accommodation raises is that this government does not have a clear picture of who students are today. Gone are the days of maximum maintenance grants, free education and support many current MPs received. We know 61% of students are working part time to support themselves financially through degrees, with some working full time whilst also doing full time courses, without even mentioning those who also have to juggle study with caring responsibilities.
This summer, tens of thousands of students were planning on working full time to save up for next academic year, yet the current pandemic means that for many this is not possible. Those who are unable to work will be hit hard, including many disabled students who for will not be able to work for their own safety.
Nearly three in four students are concerned to some extent about their ability to pay rent as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. Students facing financial hardship will be unable to apply for government support- they don't have access to universal credit or housing benefits and university hardship funds are rarely able to offer sufficient support. With a student finance package that does not cover living costs for most students and job prospects not looking promising, we are likely to be headed into significant economic downturn. The government needs to step in and offer a genuine hardship fund for those students who have been financially impacted and who need help. Accumulating rent arrears and saddling students with even more debt is simply not an adequate response.