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Oxford SU fights for renter protection amid student rent strikes

Oxford University Student Union and Oxford Brookes Union has written a letter to major lettings agents in Oxford reminding them of their duties under the law and asking for greater protections of students who have been badly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter was sent by Róisín McCallion, VP Welfare and Equal Opportunities at Oxford SU, and Daisy Hopkins, Vice-President of Student Wellbeing at Oxford Brookes SU. It argued that the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including job losses and caring responsibilities, made it “increasingly difficult” for some students to make rent payments.

The letter went on to remind landlords of Government advice on evictions, which encouraged landlords to “work together to put in place a rent payment scheme where people are struggling to pay their rent”. The advice also reminded landlords that they must give tenants three months’ notice before they seek the termination of a tenancy.

All landlords have been granted a three month mortgage holiday by the Government, meaning that private landlords may stop paying towards their mortgage without impacting their credit scores. While renters have been granted an extended three-month notice period before the termination of a tenancy, tenants will still be liable for their rent.

Given the exceptional circumstances presented by the pandemic, the welfare officers went on to propose a number of additional measures designed to protect those students who had been made most vulnerable by the pandemic. The additional measures are as follows:

  • For students who are unable to return home for whatever reason, an extension of their tenancy should be granted in incidence that Covid-19 isolation measures continue past the end of the fixed term period of their tenancy. This will prevent the individual from being made homeless.
  • Students that have been financially impacted as a result of the situation and cannot move out receive a significant rent reduction or a rent holiday where no rent payments are required throughout the current crisis.
  • Partners should be lobbied to follow the advice of the National Residential Landlords Association to suspend rent increases for the next 12 months, including reversal of planned rent increases for upcoming tenancies.
  • Consider a no-penalty contract release for students who are no longer living at the tenancy address, without transferring any costs to other, remaining tenants. If students have already paid for the next period, this should be refunded along with their deposit.

The letter encouraged lettings agents to forward the letter on to landlords, and support the requests, assisting landlords where necessary.

Speaking to Cherwell, Róisín McCallion emphasised the importance of students being allowed to remain in privately rented accommodation for the duration of the pandemic, noting that students who were estranged from their families or who lived in abusive households would need to be able to continue their tenancies in Oxford regardless of the length of their tenancy contracts. Without additional protection these students could be made homeless by the crisis.

McCallion also highlighted the fourth recommendation to landlords, that no costs should not be transferred to remaining tenants if one tenant chooses to leave the contract early. Tenancy contracts typically make tenants collectively responsible for rent and other payments, but the SU has requested that other students should not be held liable for the financial situation of co-tenants.

The Student Union offers advice to any students who are facing financial or residential difficulties, but due to the significant increase in the number of students who were making requests for residential advice, the Union decided to send the letter to all lettings agents letting to students in Oxford.

So far, McCallion says that while some agencies have responded positively to the letter, so far none have made concrete commitments to the measures outlined in the letter.

A spokesperson for College and County told Cherwell that they have “shared [the letter] with some of the relevant landlords.

“Some of the ideas are in line with government proposals, but some of the ideas in the letter are unrealistic for many clients (especially those with business loans and not mortgages)

“Where we have students who are in genuine difficulty, I am sure we can help them negotiate a solution with our clients. One of the problems is that there are a number of students who really do not have any “hardship” who are asking for “relief” from their landlord and making Landlords sceptical about the genuine ones.”

Cherwell also reached out to Allen & Harris, Andrews, Chancellors, Connells, Scott Fraser and Oxford Lettings for comment. None have replied.

All Oxford colleges have waived tenancy fees for students who are not returning for Trinity term.

In the meantime, students across the country have initiated rent strikes, demanding that students in private halls and university-managed accommodation should be granted relief from their third-term rent.

Cherwell spoke to ‘Liberate the University’, a movement which is coordinating rent strikes at Universities in London, including University College London. The group has demanded that students in all forms of accommodation should be allowed to leave their lettings contracts early, that belongings left in rooms should be stored from collection when it is safe to do so, that students remaining in halls should be granted a 20% rent reduction, and that all halls should enforce a uniform policy in regard to rent payments.

The group currently believes that between one hundred and two hundred students are currently on rent strike at London universities, although many are worried about legal or disciplinary action being taken against them.

The movement saw early success, with UCL operated halls and University of London intercollegiate halls agreeing to three of their demands. However, most private halls have still not agreed to any of the demands.

UCL had initially asked students leaving their contracts early to vacate all possessions from their room in contravention of lockdown regulations, however this policy was quickly reversed.

UCL did not reply to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Sanctuary Students, which operates a number of halls of residence across London, told Cherwell: “While we understand that some students and parents are disappointed, the decision was made with the wider interests of our customers and communities at the forefront of our minds.

“We continue to house a significant number of national and international students in our properties in various locations and for many of these, our accommodation is their primary home. All our sites remain open and without our accommodation these students may become homeless. It is essential we continue to provide them with support staff and access to a safe, secure, managed place to live.

“We are aware that student loan payments will continue through this period and the government is encouraging tenants living in rented accommodation to pay their rent as normal. We have also been encouraging any students with financial concerns to contact us to discuss their situation and will be happy to offer them flexible payment options through an agreed payment plan.”

Cherwell also reached out to Urbanest, another student accommodation provider which has not agreed to the demands made by LtU. Urbanest did not reply to the request for comment.

Students at the University of Surrey also threatened a rent strike over payments of third term rent. The University later announced that no students would be required to pay fees for rent in University-managed accommodation for their third term.

A spokesperson for ‘Surrey, Cut the Rent’, the organisers of the rent strike, told Cherwell that they “know that university management keeps a close eye on student campaigning, and… know for a fact they were aware of the size of the potential strike and we do believe that the threat of a rent strike impacted their decision with the partial fulfilment of demands.”

The group encouraged all students to email their concerns to accommodation managers.

The University of Surrey did not respond to a request for comment.

Image by Isabella Lill

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