When Risa Chauhan, 20, started looking for somewhere to live in her third year studying at LSE in London, the coronavirus crisis had already hit. She and her housemates were keen to make arrangements that meant they would not end up paying for a home they could not use.
The group, who will be living in a private houseshare, was hoping letting agencies and landlords would be flexible. This was not the case, however. One of the first obstacles they encountered was their contract, which was in the form of a joint tenancy rather than three separate tenancy agreements. “As joint tenants, it made us all responsible for paying the rent. For instance, if none of us could pay the rent, our landlord could pursue any of our guarantors and ask them to pay off the rent arrears, whereas with a separate tenancy agreement I’m just liable for my part of the rent.”
This made her and her flatmates incredibly worried. “We were thinking, what if we go back into lockdown again and as one of my friends lives in America, what if she has to go back? They didn’t seem to care about the fact that we are students and would not be able to afford the rent if that occurred.”
Chauhan and her flatmates were faced with the prospect of owing a whole year’s rent even if they were sent home early. They decided to propose a six-month break clause. “If something unexpected occurs during the pandemic it would be really hard for us to pay the rent, so we wanted the six-month break clause so it would half our rent,” she says. Initially reluctant, the landlord accepted, subject to them giving two months’ notice.
Chauhan’s concerns are being shared by students up and down the country who are starting the academic year at a time of great uncertainty. Many are worrying about what happens to their accommodation if they fall victim to local lockdowns, their universities close or they become ill part-way through the year.
With students living in different types of accommodation, from university-owned homes to private halls and houseshares, their rights and obligations differ.
“The law that affects landlords and student tenants is complicated and has been made more complex by changes brought about in response to the coronavirus pandemic,” says Erol Izzet of Carter Jones Solicitors.
Tenancy agreements are a legally binding contract, so it is difficult for either party to withdraw. “The starting point is that a tenant is liable for the rent until the end of the agreement,” he says. However, “there are certain legal doctrines that may be relevant to the issue of Covid-19 and how it has affected a residential lettings agreement: force majeure, frustration or supervening illegality”.
On frustration, for example, Citizens Advice says that if a student has to leave accommodation there could be grounds to say that the contract could not be fulfilled.
“It might be possible to put forward a ‘frustration’ argument if accommodation is not available, for example, because campus has been shut down or it is impossible or illegal for the student to travel to the accommodation,” it says.
“This might be relevant if the purpose of the accommodation is radically altered. For instance, if it was closely tied to a student attending a course in a particular location and the provider is now delivering the whole course remotely.”
Another concern for students is whether they can be evicted from their accommodation for failing to comply with rules or because they cannot pay the rent. Izzet says this will depend on the nature of the student’s letting.
Trinity College in Cambridge made headlines for forcing students to sign contracts before they moved in that said they could be evicted at short notice. The contracts told students to “bring only the minimum amount of belongings that you require, primarily for academic purposes and basic living standards”. And warned that they “must have prepared travel plans to leave college accommodation, at your expense, at very short notice and at any time unless you have been granted permission to stay”.
It said that failing to comply with these measures could result in fines and the withdrawal of college accommodation. A spokesperson for Trinity College says: “These measures are needed for the college to deal with potentially serious challenges in the short and longer term. The college is committed to acting responsibly in all matters related to public health. No student will be without accommodation if they cannot return home or have nowhere else to live.”
Izzet says most lettings made by universities and colleges are “non-assured lettings” because they are designated “specified educational institutions” by the Housing Act 1988.
“A court order would be required to recover possession in these type of lettings – after expiry of a valid notice – without there being the need for a reason,” he says. “With private sector tenancies, the most common type of private sector letting to students is an assured shorthold tenancy. A court order is required before a tenant can be evicted in this case.”
Scotland has introduced emergency legislation that seeks to protect student renters in halls of residence and purpose-built student accommodation – that is, privately run halls – during the pandemic. The rules allow students to leave their residential tenancy at 28 days’ notice if they signed up after 26 May and after only seven days if they had signed up earlier.
The vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, says she wants the governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Westminster to follow that example.
“Students deserve to be treated fairly and reasonably. And when it comes to rented accommodation, if a student needs to leave their accommodation during this pandemic it is fair and right that they are able to give reasonable notice (one month or less) to terminate their contract,” she says.
“All student accommodation providers should take this approach and to follow the precedent set in March to June this year when many accommodation providers allowed students to terminate their contracts early as the country went into lockdown.”
The students paying twice what they expected for a room
Students at the University of East Anglia (UEA) started a petition after facing higher than expected rents as a result of the need for social distancing. The twin rooms in the university’s Ziggurat halls of residence would normally be shared by two students paying £79.45 a week each. But to allow for social distancing UEA allocated each of the rooms to just one person, and charged them the full room £158.90 rate.
Matthew Fulton-McAlister, Labour councillor for the University ward, says the move will have hit the poorest students looking for the lowest campus rents. “When they signed up to it, they were signing up to having a housemate, and while I completely support UEA’s decision to make these rooms single occupancy, they should have accepted that there would be a slight loss of income,” he says.
A Change.org petition from “Anon Students” posted three weeks ago called on UEA to cut the price. “Many of us did not put down this accommodation choice on our application and expected to pay £118.09 per week, as they applied for a standard single Ziggurat instead, or it was significantly low on their list,” it said. “The effects of this room allocation are immense as we were not informed of the possibility of this price increase or that we would be the only occupant until we were given the offer.”
UEA says that the rooms were offered “after the particular changed circumstances of clearing in August recruitment but were offered in writing with the clarity for those students that these would be on a sole occupancy basis. In all cases it was made clear in the room offer letter that the room was for their sole use.”
It says it has supported 14 students who wished to move. “Some have chosen to move to higher priced rooms or rooms of the same price and others to lower price options and we were happy to offer them rooms they preferred as they became available.”
Your rights as a student
If you fall ill or your university stops face-to-face teaching, you may want to cancel your accommodation. Unfortunately, even in the best-case scenario you are likely to end up paying rent for several weeks after you move out.
• In Scotland, students who signed a tenancy agreement before 27 May can give only seven days’ notice to move out if it is for a reason connected to coronavirus; those who have signed since need to give 28 days’ notice. This only applies to university-owned homes and purpose-built student blocks.
• Otherwise, the notice period will be outlined in your contract. There could be a break clause, which will allow you or the landlord to finish the contract early, but these are rare in student tenancies.
• Most contracts for university-owned and purpose-built student accommodation are for a fixed term, often the academic year. You may be able to ask to cancel but only be released from your rent when the provider finds another tenant for your room.
• If you move out and stop paying rent you will likely lose your deposit and you could end up with a county court judgment against you, which will make it difficult to get credit for six years.
• For a private houseshare most landlords will require you to be joint tenants with your housemates rather than giving you separate contracts. This means you are all liable to cover the rent, so if one person leaves you need to make sure they can still pay their share.
• If you need advice on your options, try your student union, Citizens Advice or Shelter.
• This article was amended on 3 October 2020. An earlier version stated in a quote that court orders are not needed to gain possession of non-assured lettings, but this is not the case. They are required, after the expiry of a valid notice period.