The pandemic has highlighted how landlords prey on students

But are students fighting back?

Will Green is an undergraduate student at the University of Leeds, an inept hockey player, and an occasional poster on an Oxford United forum.

The impact of coronavirus on student accomodation first hit the headlines when contractors in Manchester erected fences around first-year halls of residence. Whilst the barriers were intended to keep non-students out, rather than students in, it struck a chord with many students who simply feel they’re not getting value for money, leading to dozens of rent strikes around the country, with varying degrees of success.

The fences brought a prison camp atmosphere which was reinforced by the sheer number of security personnel stationed at accommodation. At my university in Leeds, their vehicles are decked out in blue and yellow chequered squares with dog teams in tow. They’re not anything new but coronavirus has seen things escalate.

Charles Hicks, a fresher at the University of Bristol, describes security as ‘power-hungry’; every resident of his block of 56 first-years was issued a £200 fine after one flat held a party (tellingly, the blanket fine was later rescinded). For pretty much every fresher, this year has been a disappointment, and universities’ authoritarian response has hardly made new students feel welcome.

However, university halls are the less dysfunctional component of student accommodation. Whilst there are questions about value for money, most universities have offered rebates for halls under their own control, including larger refunds for those remaining at home all semester. The financial situation for older students is considerably worse. Private landlords have no incentive to offer refunds so tens of thousands of older students, living at home through the pandemic, are paying rent on properties they aren’t inhabiting.

Whatever you think of the morality of landlordism, it’s undoubtable that undergraduates are prime candidates for exploitation. Students are naïve and comparatively few support themselves. Thus many students are charged extreme rents for average properties, pressured by lettings agencies who exaggerate the competition and profit from students’ fear of missing out. One agency near me bears the advertisement, ‘it won’t be you doing the walk of shame!’ This febrile atmosphere hardly encourages a balanced appraisal of the properties on offer.

Of course, student housing has been a mess for years. As part of the preparation for this piece, I asked students in Leeds to provide me with their horror stories. Amy Hylton arrived to find a house encased in mould and urine-stained mattresses; Ross Chambers experienced recurring rodent problems and dozens of unsolved faults with his property and when Beth Constable’s floor literally collapsed underneath her, her landlord accused her of being fat.

Poor landlords are nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to students. But the temporary nature of student lets – typically for twelve months or less – and an apparent view of students as aliens to their resident towns seems to encourage landlords and letting agencies to view us as easy meat.

Some students are becoming more savvy, though. Facebook groups share information on particularly disreputable letting agencies, some of which frequently change their names in an apparent attempt to deflect lingering mistrust.

Organisations like Unipol, a Leeds-based student housing charity, and Acorn, a housing pressure group, also offer valuable advice on the do’s and don’ts of the student housing market. But these organisations are fighting a losing battle, not least because of students’ poor public image. The group near-universally blamed for spreading coronavirus around the country is unlikely to get much sympathy for sub-standard housing.

Is there a way forward? Some local areas seem to have a better approach. Edinburgh, for example, releases student housing throughout the year so there isn’t a rush on the best houses in November. This lessens the pressure on first-years to find second-year housemates in their first six weeks at university.

A widespread application of this strategy would be a good start. A better approach to refunds would also be welcome. Students are becoming increasingly radicalised, with rent strikes now seen as a viable option, and universities need to avoid alienating their customers (which is, of course, what we now are).

It’s unreasonable for older students in private accommodation to expect their money back, but closer scrutiny of the letting agencies – a ban on name changes, for instance, and an independent review body (OfLet?) – would be welcome. The long-term effect of coronavirus on student numbers, and the effect on the quantity of private student accommodation, also remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the future for student accommodation isn’t exactly looking bright.

Some names have been changed

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