This Is How Many Students Are In Rent Debt

Photographed by Kieran Boswell.
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 National Union of Students 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. 
Throughout the pandemic, students have been struggling. Over half of young people who go to university in Britain work part-time to fund their studies. Many of them relied on shop or bar work which they are now shut out of because of lockdown restrictions and are facing financial hardship as a result.
In spite of this, universities which own halls and private student accommodation providers alike have been unforgiving. According to a survey published last month by the money advice website Save The Student, the average student has so far paid £1,621 in rent for empty rooms for which they have not received a refund.
Now, new research from the UK's largest letting agent OpenRent has looked at the extent of rent debt among students who rent from private landlords. They have found that UK students are currently in £171 million of rent debt, with 11% of students currently behind on their rent and in arrears. Of the responses OpenRent received from those who have used their platform, the average amount of rent owed is £1,341.
A spokesperson for the National Union of Students (NUS) told R29: "OpenRent’s data paints a grim picture of the scale of rent arrears among student tenants. However, others have found the situation to be even worse. NUS’ research found 22% of students had fallen behind on their rent and Citizens Advice found that student tenants were more likely than the average private renter to have fallen behind on their rent at 16%." Given that student renters are largely excluded from accessing housing support through the welfare system and furlough scheme, this makes sense.
Seventy-six percent of students surveyed by OpenRent who worked prior to the pandemic said that their ability to earn money had been affected by the economic fallout of coronavirus. Only 30% of them said they were able to access the government's economic support schemes (such as the furlough scheme).

New research from the UK's largest letting agent OpenRent has found that UK students are currently in £171 million of rent debt, with 11% of students currently behind on their rent and in arrears.

Over the last few years, as anyone who rents will know, the cost of renting has been rising. When the pandemic hit there was, rightly, much concern about private renters. In England, the government's advice was that landlords should be "compassionate" but, ultimately, that it was up to private tenants to negotiate with their landlord. There was no legal compulsion for any landlord to reduce someone's rent due to the coronavirus crisis. As the NUS rightly notes: "Instead of legislating to support students to leave their tenancies early, as they did in Scotland, the government has left students in England to rely on charitable handouts from universities, huge accommodation companies and private landlords in the form of rent reductions and hardship funds. That's why the NUS recently joined a plethora of other organisations in calling for urgent action on rent debt for all renters."
These measures plainly didn't go far enough and added to an existing issue: the power imbalance between landlords and private tenants. When asked by OpenRent, 56% of students said that they find their rent "usually or always hard" to afford, even without the pandemic. But 34% said they have been unable to pay their full rent at some point since the pandemic started and 28% have asked for a rent reduction from their private landlord but did not get one. So it's unsurprising that 54% of the students surveyed said they had felt "trapped in a rental contract" during the pandemic.
In 2020 and 2021, waves of student rent strikes took place across the country. It has been hailed as the largest student movement since the tuition fee hike resistance, which saw thousands march in 2010 and again in 2015 against the government's decision to increase tuition fees to £9,250 a year.
But while there has been some movement from some universities which have partially refunded students for accommodation they cannot live in, students who rent privately from individual landlords – like private renters more broadly – are being left largely unsupported. If they are not eligible for universal credit or furlough, they have no choice but to rely on the goodwill of their landlord and hope that they can negotiate a way to deal with their rent debt.
We know that these students are not alone. A rising number of people are now in rent arrears because of the pandemic. Estimates as to the true scale of this problem vary but at the start of 2021, a survey conducted by the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) put the number of private tenants facing rent debt at around 800,000. The government currently has no plan to tackle this and so private student renters, like private renters across the nation who have fallen on hard times, have been left to fend for themselves.
A spokesperson for the NUS added: "The average student already leaves university with more than £50,000 of debt to the state, the government must not also leave them at risk of eviction, bailiffs and poor credit scores from rent debt. Moving forward, we need to see an overhaul of the student funding system, with the reintroduction of maintenance grants and radical reform of the private rented sector through the government’s promised Renters’ Reform Bill to ensure this never happens again."
You can sign the NUS petition calling for more support for students here

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