I’m Paying £167 Every Week For A University Room That I Cannot Live In

Photo by Livia Lazar / EyeEm.
In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the NUS to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. 
Eighteen-year-old Alicia Corbett is currently at home with her parents in Birmingham. She is supposed to be in Bath, where she is enrolled in her first year at Bath Spa University as an interior design student. But because of the national lockdown that began on 4th January, she was unable to return to her student halls. This means that she is currently paying £167 every week for a room that she cannot live in. 
While students in most university-owned accommodation are able to negotiate directly with their higher education institutions, Alicia is one of thousands of students who are at the mercy of private accommodation providers. Her landlord is Unite Students, a real estate investment trust and the largest provider of purpose-built private student accommodation (PBSA) in the country, with a portfolio of over 75,000 beds in 177 properties across England, Wales and Scotland. 
Alicia Corbett
Alicia did not request to be put in private halls, she was placed here by her university. She has not only joined but is now helping to co-ordinate a rent strike movement for those housed with Unite because she feels that she, like so many students living in this bit of the student housing market, is being treated unfairly. 
"We have been offered a discount on our rent," she explains, "but it’s only a 50% discount for seven weeks. That means we get three and a half weeks discount in total as long as we don’t return until 7th March. By then, I’ll have been stuck at home for four months because of coronavirus but the refund I’m allowed to claim is only worth three and a half weeks’ rent? It doesn’t make sense." 
Bath Spa University told R29 that they are "offering a full rebate for the period 4th January to 8th March 2021 to students who are not living in their university-managed accommodation due to the lockdown. All students with rental contracts with the university have been contacted to confirm if they are eligible for a refund." They added that they are working with the Students' Union "to encourage other private landlords to make similar concessions."
Alicia is right, it doesn’t make sense but, like any renter, she will have signed a contract which means, pandemic or not, she is legally obliged to pay her rent. And while universities may be more accountable to their students, PBSAs work slightly differently. In recent years, the private student accommodation sector has become a huge part of Britain’s property market. Back in 2014, two thirds of student halls of residence were provided by universities themselves. According to a report from the global estate agent Cushman & Wakefield, by 2020, the private sector had control of more than 50% of the market. 

I don't think it's right that a private company can charge us so much for accommodation we can't live in like this. It feels morally corrupt.

Alicia Corbett, 18
Why? Put simply: student accommodation is big business. Since 2010, when tuition fees were increased threefold, the number of students enrolling in higher education has consistently increased, reaching record highs. In 2019/20 there were 2.46 million students at UK higher education institutions, according to a UK parliament briefing paper. The National Union of Students (NUS) has found that half of student renters spend more than 75% of their monthly income on housing costs. Housing is students’ biggest single outgoing and, as Matt Myers, the author of Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation has noted, private providers know that students have no choice but to pay it, often using their maintenance loans to do so. 
"It feels like a waste of a huge loan that I’m going to have to pay back one day, it really does," Alicia says. "I had great intentions to come to university and make the best of a year that was so uncertain with the backdrop of COVID. I don’t think it’s right that a private company can charge us so much for accommodation we can’t live in like this. It feels morally corrupt." 
In Bristol, 19-year-old history student Ryan Grant-Khalani is also helping to organise a rent strike against Unite at Chantry Court. They say that students have been placed in Unite halls despite wanting to live in University of Bristol accommodation and are now having to negotiate with a private company over rent reductions because of the pandemic. 
Ryan also notes that, despite lockdown, some students have had no choice but to return to Chantry Court, where they have not been properly able to access the communal study areas they are paying for because of coronavirus measures. "I am not safe at home so I have to be here. I pay my entire rent out of my maintenance loan myself," they explain. "That is money I won’t be getting back even though I can’t properly access the accommodation."
Ryan, who pays £170 a week, says: "[Unite] are not providing adequate service. Even if you regard us as customers or numbers on a spreadsheet, rather than human students with emotions and problems, that we have to deal with this on top of doing a degree at this difficult time isn’t right."
A spokesperson for Bristol University told R29 that they were stepping in. "Students living in Chantry Court were assigned that residence by us – it is a ‘nomination property’ which means they apply to the university but on acceptance of their tenancy Unite is their landlord," they confirmed. They added that while Unite is applying a 50% rent rebate during lockdown, the university would be "topping up" this amount to match what they are currently offering their own tenants. "We are working with Unite currently to assess how best to apply the rebate to these students." 
Nineteen-year-old City University first-year nursing student Nicole Surmeida is also encountering problems with Unite. "I expected much better than what I am paying for given that I will be spending around £10,000 across this whole year," she says. 
Nicole Surmeida
Nicole explains that Unite is offering 50% rent reductions for students who could not return to halls. She doesn’t think this is good enough and notes that it completely ignores students like herself who had no choice but to return because of the nature of their courses. "I won’t be eligible for that discount and I’m struggling with paying rent too. I’m currently in my overdraft. But I’m still having to deal with hot water problems, rats, washing machines not working and the heating not working while paying full rent," she laments. 
"I feel like they haven't really considered healthcare students at all," Nicole adds, "especially with COVID when we're putting ourselves at risk. They've disregarded us."

I pay my entire rent out of my maintenance loan myself. That is money I won't be getting back even though I can't properly access the accommodation.

Ryan Grant-Khalani, 19
A spokesperson for City University told R29 that they are in conversation with Unite. "We have been encouraging providers and landlords to offer flexibility to those who wish to be released from their tenancy agreements," they explained. "Our students who are in Unite properties now have access to discounts which are in place until at least 8th March 2021. While the university does not own any student accommodation, we continue to raise the concerns of our students with our accommodation partners as we know they would like the discounts and arrangements to go further."
Last November the NUS surveyed students about the impact of the coronavirus crisis. They found that 22% of student renters have been unable to pay their rent in full over the past four months and that those renting from a private landlord are worst affected. Sixty-one percent of students said that coronavirus has had some impact on their income and 9% said they have had to turn to food banks during the pandemic.
Those in private halls feel they are being particularly abandoned by private companies who only care about profits. Unite Students is a real estate investment trust. In 2019, they acquired another accommodation provider, Liberty Living, and have seen strong profit growth ever since according to their own annual report. Similarly, iQ (another large PBSA) was deemed so appealing an investment opportunity that in 2020 it was bought by New York-based private equity firm Blackstone for £4.7 billion.  
Georgia Langham
Twenty-year-old fashion illustration and imaging student Georgia Langham is currently involved in a rent strike at halls owned by iQ in Acton, west London. She pays £197 a week in rent. "We’ve been told that we can either leave our contracts or get a seven-week rent refund," she explains, "but this doesn’t seem fair when other universities are offering both. Many of us are arts students so we had to come back because our equipment was in our rooms but that hasn’t been taken into account." 
Georgia, who is involved in negotiations with University of the Arts London, adds: "It’s really frustrating. We haven’t had any contact with iQ at all despite us sending them multiple emails. They are our landlord but they haven’t acknowledged our rent strike and, in the last few days, we’ve been receiving emails saying that credit controllers will be chasing us for unpaid rent." 
Should students have been asked to sign 12-month accommodation contracts with private providers for this academic year when it was clear that the pandemic would cause disruption to their studies and prevent campuses from physically reopening? As students struggle financially because the hospitality and retail jobs they would usually take on to prop themselves up as they study have disappeared, the earnings of private accommodation providers are forecast to bounce back after the pandemic.
Alicia’s question about who, ultimately, should suffer is particularly poignant. The government has announced a £50 million hardship fund for students impacted by the pandemic. And in some cases, it’s now the universities who are bailing out private accommodation providers. The University of Salford’s Covid Assistance Fund, for instance, has been made available to those renting privately as well as those in university-owned accommodation. When you consider how lucrative private halls are for the companies which own them and hear stories of how reluctant they are to negotiate with students, it begs the question of whether the public money intended to help students – and the income from increased tuition fees – is going where it is needed most.
A spokesperson for the University of the Arts London said: "A very small number of students have advised us they are on rent strike and we are monitoring the situation carefully. The university has advised students they will receive a seven week rent waiver if they are not able to use their accommodation during initial period of the national lockdown 6th January – 16th February. This represents 15% – 18.5% of total annual rent depending on the length of contract. I should explain that is not a response to the rent strike but rather a decision by the university to offer a fair arrangement for students who cannot access their accommodation because of the government restrictions on student travel. Since the autumn term we have allowed students to terminate their contract if they are unable to return to UAL halls of residence for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  This continues to be available. In addition, our student hardship funds have been expanded and support is available where family and student income have been affected by the economic impact of the pandemic."
A Unite Students spokesperson said: "Our focus throughout COVID-19 has been the health, safety and security of all our students and staff. Since the outbreak of this global pandemic, we have announced rental discounts totalling in excess of £100 million, which is a very substantial package by any terms. We are one of only a small number of private landlords who have provided any degree of financial support to students.
"All our properties, like universities, remain open and tens of thousands of students continue to live with us. Like any private landlord, our customers sign binding contracts and our rents are not normally reduced for time tenants choose to spend away from a property. However, recognising the disruption students face in these exceptional circumstances, we have offered all eligible students a seven-week discount up to 8th March, which we believe is fair and proportionate. We will keep this under review."
"The government has also provided limited financial support for students, including an additional £50 million announced earlier this month. We would urge any student who is struggling financially to talk to us and also to contact their university student finance team for access to any additional support."
A spokesperson for iQ said: "Students who live at The Costume Store do not have tenancy agreements with iQ. While we own and operate the building, all residents have their contracts directly with - and pay their rent to - the University of the Arts London. We are doing all we can to support students through this uncertain time. At sites, unlike The Costume Store, where students do pay rent directly to iQ and have been unable to return to their room, we have offered up to six weeks rent free – running from  5 January until 15 February – and we continue to offer flexible start dates for students that are yet to take up their accommodation."
You can sign the NUS petition calling for more support for students here

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