Many university students are being threatened with legal action from letting agents and private landlords unless they pay for accommodation they signed up to until the end of the academic year.
Others have hit a brick wall in trying to get refunds for rent already paid on digs for the summer term – sums typically ranging from £1,000 to £3,000.
This is despite most students being urged by their universities to go home in late March – as campuses closed – and complete their studies remotely. Many have not put a foot inside their rented digs since the final term started.
Standing firm: Jack Clarke, with his father Phil, has lodged a complaint
Pleas from some universities calling for private landlords to compromise on final term rental payments have largely been ignored.
Other universities, acting as agents for private landlords, have flatly refused to offer students any refund of their agent’s fees – or to provide students with details of their landlords so they can appeal to their better side. The universities say release of such information would be in breach of data protection rules.
Not all student accommodation providers or their agents have played hardball. Some nationwide operators of student accommodation have agreed to waive all or some of the payments for this term while most universities have waived fees on campus accommodation they provide themselves.
The hard-nosed attitude of a majority of letting agents and landlords appears to be in defiance of guidance issued by the Competition & Markets Authority on ‘consumer contracts’ impacted by the corona-virus pandemic.
Late last month, the authority, responsible for protecting consumers from unfair trading practices, said that businesses should offer refunds where a consumer was not allowed to use a service as a result of lockdown restrictions.
Although its finger was pointed at providers of wedding events, holiday accommodation and childcare nurseries, it confirmed to The Mail on Sunday that its guidance also applied to suppliers of student accommodation.
Some nationwide operators of student accommodation have agreed to waive all or some of the payments for this term while most universities have waived fees on campus accommodation
It said: ‘CMA’s statement on consumer contracts, cancellations and refunds, which aims to help consumers understand their rights, would also apply to students. In most cases, the CMA would expect businesses to offer refunds where they cancel bookings or don’t provide any services – or where consumers are not allowed to use them because of lockdown restrictions.’
Ella Smithyman, 21, has just received a final warning over the non-payment of rent for the summer term on the digs she was living in before she headed home to Middlesbrough the weekend before the country went into lockdown in March.
She was in a house with six other students and was in the final year of a degree in biomedical research at Chester University. The property is managed by Abbey Rentals.
The warning states: ‘Abbey Rentals is about to start legal proceedings to recover your current rent arrears. Costs will also be added to the principal debt as per your tenancy agreement signed before you moved in.’ It has given her seven days to pay.
Ella’s father Paul says: ‘Abbey Rentals has been inflexible and unhelpful and the only concession it has offered is a delayed payment plan.’ He adds: ‘Ella emailed Abbey stating she had to give up her part-time job in Chester and return home due to the campus being shut. But requests for a rent discount have been ignored.’
Paul, an operational manager for a logistics company, says the debt will fall on his shoulders because he agreed to act as Ella’s guarantor. He says: ‘I would reluctantly agree to pay 50 per cent. But then I might go to the small claims court, cite the exceptional circumstances, and argue the contract from Abbey has not been fulfilled.’
His argument appears to dovetail with the guidance issued by the CMA on services not provided because of lockdown – namely that suppliers should offer refunds where payment has been made or discounts where it hasn’t.
On Friday, Abbey said: ‘We have followed Government guidelines and offered any student who has financial difficulties a payment plan – although this has not been an issue as most students have received their Government loans which are intended for living expenses.’
Like Ella Smithyman, Jack Clarke also believes his landlord should offer a discount on the third term rent due on the digs he vacated in March. But unlike Ella he has not been able to contact the landlord because his university, through which he arranged his accommodation, will not provide him with their details.
Parents rage… but agents stay silent on clamour for refunds
Parents have contacted The Mail on Sunday in their hundreds to express their anger at the reticence of landlords – both big companies and private – to waive student accommodation fees this term.
By way of contrast, only a handful of landlords, or their agents, have been prepared to defend their taking of rents despite the fact that most student tenants have long gone home to continue their studies.
Paul Parker, from Northampton, has only just paid the rent due on his daughter’s third term accommodation at the University of Liverpool, provided by Student Cribs. He paid because he did not want any adverse credit black mark against her name.
Parents have contacted The Mail on Sunday in their hundreds to express their anger at the reticence of landlords to waive student accommodation fees this term
Yet it doesn’t mean he is happy with the way Student Cribs has behaved.
Paul says: ‘My daughter was told she had an obligation to pay the outstanding rent even though there was no chance of her returning to Liverpool to complete her academic year’s studies.
‘There is a right way of doing business and a wrong way – and Student Cribs has not played ball.’
Paul now fears that his daughter will be paying fees for new accommodation in September – with another provider – that she is again unable to use because of continued coronavirus issues. ‘It’s all rather unsatisfactory,’ he says. Student Cribs did not respond to The Mail on Sunday’s request for an explanation of why it was not prepared to waive a slice of tenants’ third term rents.
But its silence was not a lone one. Other accommodation providers including Campus Living Villages, Host and Mansion House refused to say anything. One private landlord did email, saying: ‘Don’t demonise us landlords.’
Jack, 22, from Sevenoaks in Kent, is in the final year of a business management degree at Warwick University and until lockdown was living with six other students in Leamington Spa. Jack arranged his tenancy through Warwick Accommodation, an arm of the university that acts as a facilitator between students and private landlords.
Although the university has waived accommodation fees for students living on campus, it has not offered any concessions for those who arranged tenancies through it for off-campus digs provided by private landlords. This is despite Warwick Accommodation making a healthy income from its role as an agent.
Jack has lodged online a three-pronged complaint. First, he wants to know whether it has actually ap-proached his landlord over a possible rental reduction. Second, he has asked whether he could have direct contact with the landlord – something it has so far declined to agree to on data protection grounds.
Finally, he has asked Warwick Accommodation to provide him with the amount of his rent that it takes in fees before passing on the rest to the landlord – and whether it would return a slice of its fees to students like him as a ‘gesture of goodwill’.
Although it has yet to respond to these requests, Warwick Accommodation previously told Jack that it had asked landlords ‘if they may be willing to forgo payments owing to them’. Yet the response it had received was that a ‘great many’ landlords were reluctant to do so.
On Friday, Jack’s father Phil said: ‘While the financial assistance given to businesses and employees in response to the coronavirus crisis has been fantastic, the financial difficulties facing students have fallen through the cracks.’
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