Coronavirus has exposed the many and extensive failings and injustices of the present social, economic and political orders.
I could write a whole separate piece on how these inequalities have materialised and disproportionately affected different groups (BAME, renters, insecure workers, disabled people etc). I am in no way suggesting with this article that students are a marginalised group as such, and it is a very generalised piece in which I’ll aim to highlight how the government are not doing enough to protect renters and within that, students renting from private landlords.
I’ll detail my own personal experience in the effort to highlight the absurdity of the practices and the injustices that take place in the ‘student housing market’ but I imagine that many students are facing similar situations and levels of precarity that are unprecedented due to the pandemic. This is not meant to be a sob story and I don’t wish for any sympathy, I, as a student, a renter and a zero hours worker need the government to step up and legislate for the freezing of rents and bills, the no consequence breaking of tenancy and the refund of any rent paid in advance.
Despite announcing that evictions are illegal, there has been no mandated reduction or suspension of rent collections during this period of lockdown and so far, no calls from the opposition to have this bound in law. With millions of people affected by loss of income, redundancy and on 80% furlough, their income has reduced while their monthly overheads remain the same. As students, the majority of us are faced with renting whilst at university and though many universities have announced that those residing in halls of residence are no longer obligated to pay rent and had refunds; those of us in private HMOs do not face the same financial relief.
I am an undergraduate student at Brighton University, the UK city with the highest student population in the country. Not only that, but we face extortionate rental prices, with it being commonplace to pay anywhere between £500 – £600 a month for a room in a shared house, meaning the landlord owning my HMO currently is raking in about £40k a year off this one property. Not only are the prices extortionate, the majority of properties require a 12-month tenancy contract despite many students moving home for non-term time, requiring us to pay for an uninhabited room costing thousands over the summer months.
The majority of students I know, including myself, work part-time during term and full-time during the holidays in order to be more financially secure but due to the current pandemic, the work we previously fulfilled mostly on zero hour contracts (bars, restaurants, hospitality and shops) excludes us from the employment protections such as sick pay and the furlough scheme announced by the government. In terms of financial relief available, as students we are ineligible for Universal Credit apart from a few exceptions (if you have children to support, etc) and on top of this, the Conservative government cut housing benefits for those who are under 25 years old. So with no job, no benefits and no wage protection, many university students are faced with months of financial hardship.
But what about student loans? The student loans that undergraduates are entitled to barely cover the living costs of university life, with rent costing between £4000 and £9000 a year depending on your location in the country. My annual rent for this year of university totals £6499.92 with a deposit of £600 floating around in someone’s bank account whilst I struggle to make ends meet. My maintenance loan entitlement comes to £6487 – at this point it would make more sense if Student Finance paid it directly to the landlord whose name I don’t know and whom I’ve never met.
The Student Union here in Brighton have been doing a brilliant job, managing to successfully lobby multiple agencies and landlords to reduce and waive rents for those students who are in private accommodation. Some landlords are reducing rents or waiving the third semester, however whether or not this applies to an individual student is dependent on their landlord possessing an ounce of generosity or empathy for fellow human beings.
Upon asking my own agent to negotiate a reduction in rent, I was left absolutely dismayed (but not surprised) that they essentially told me to get stuffed. In the response it was expressed that the landlord is using this property for ‘commercial finance’ which in short, means investing in property to make a financial gain (I am not a financial or property expert, I googled it and this is what came up!). So that being said, the priority here is clearly that this landlord is able to make a profit. This type of response is what many renters, including students, will be hearing. The outright prioritization of the right to make a profit versus the right of tenants to be able to feed themselves and afford to live is symptomatic of a society in which for decades corporations, hedge funds and yes, landlords, have ruled.
Further in the email, the agent made clear that for this landlord, even if I were to pay reduced rent, I would still have to pay the full amount over a longer period, essentially causing me longer term issues; the message being “Find that money or we will ring up your guarantor and force them to pay it”. Secondly, if I were to reduce the amount I paid monthly disregarding that, I’d still have to find all the money anyway. I would need to provide my agents with wage slips pre and post COVID, bank statements and evidence of my student loan not coming through. Further to this, they would require that I detail a payment plan to pay off any rent owed – as if there isn’t a pandemic on and there is no idea among anyone as to when life will return to a semblance of normality (not that I think it should return to exactly the way it was, but that’s another story). I am still unsure as to whether my landlord can legally request these personal, and what I would consider private, documents and am researching it online.
I know that my story will be similar to many students and renters out there, income to zero, expenses the same with no substantial welfare packages being rolled out by the government. It lies in the hands of the opposition to be pushing for a workers’ relief plan that includes the freezing of rents, bills, debt and loan payments, TV Licence, council tax, university fees – the list goes on. Coronavirus put a stop to our incomes, the government must put a stop to our expenses (or pay them for us!). Freeze rent, Freeze bills.