As a Law student, I am passionate about voicing and addressing issues of social injustice and inequality in the world we live in. As a young woman, I have faced many inequalities in my 21 years, but most recently as a student I have fallen prey to the greed and callous nature of private landlords during the Covid-19 global crisis.
Like thousands of other students across the UK, I rent from a private landlord in the student area of my city, Newcastle upon Tyne. Lured into signing contracts for a shared student house from only a few months into starting university and meeting your new housemates, this is an exciting time of adulthood, but the problems a shared tenancy can hold are rarely discovered until it is too late. In March of this year when the severity of the global pandemic became clear, I requested a reduction or a halt in rent to my landlord. With both the government and university urging students to return to their homes, I returned to Northern Ireland (via 3 cancelled flights, a train, 2 buses and a ferry later, but that’s another story). After my landlord ignored my initial requests and explanation of my individual circumstances, I sent a letter compromising to pay half rent for the empty property until it was possible to return. The next 2 months were spent contacting numerous persons of authority to plead for support for student renters, which included Newcastle City Council, Ministry of Housing, Student Room forums, President of Newcastle University Student Union, local MPs and my personal tutor, all whilst revising for and sitting my Law exams.
Absolutely no practical support has been given by the UK government for vulnerable student renters during this crisis. Student loans often do not cover the high costs of their accommodation and living expenses, and many students juggle more than one part time job along with a full-time degree in order to make ends meet. Already paying extortionate money for overpriced rooms in a house, student renters have been left feeling abandoned, whilst students who live in accommodation that is managed by the university or private student corporation flats have had their rent completely stopped. The difference? Humanity. My landlord completely refused even a minor reduction in rent for an empty house that I could not physically occupy due to travel bans. He has since threatened me with legal action, court fees, late payment interest fees and hounded the other tenants for my rent. He rebuffed my final plea of an offer to pay 80% of the £1200+ expected to be paid by myself during 3 months of inoccupation. How is it just or equal, that one group of students have had their rent completely stopped during this global crisis, and thousands of vulnerable student renters are left being threatened and forced to pay full rent? This situation is all too similar across the water in Belfast, with students forced to continue paying for barely liveable houses filled with mould, damp, and broken beds in the Holylands, whilst landlords ignore their complaints and refuse to respond to emails.
Furthermore, Northern Irish citizens studying in England are disadvantaged from the very start of their degree. The maximum available loan for those from a low-income family is £3,000 less than English students from the same financial bracket. £3,000 makes a massive difference when considering travel costs, accommodation costs, and general student living costs. This is an issue which I disputed last year and tried to contact MPs, and Ministers for Education and Finance, all of whom essentially dismissed this inequality and did little to help. It seems clear to me that those whose roles are to listen and fight for the inequalities of local citizens seem to forget the issues facing students, and we are time and time again cast to the bottom of the priority pecking order.
Gemma Mainwaring, the Student Union Welfare Officer for University of Gloucestershire wrote to local MPs calling for protection for students. In her open letter she stated a key point that “the business model of housing students is based on university physically occurring. The fact that it has come to an end early this year is part of the risk that must be absorbed by accommodation providers - not students.” Students should not be punished by being trapped in tenancy contracts that offer no leeway for exceptional circumstances when many other contractual agreements such as banks, phone and internet contracts have changed their terms to help customers during this financially precarious time. A report based on a YouGov survey concluded that 1 in 8 private renters have fallen behind with housing costs since the coronavirus crisis began, yet the vast majority of landlords refuse to offer any leeway for rent arrears from tenants who have always before paid full rent exactly on time.
Students are an irreplaceable part and vital contribution to our economy yet have been left battling against greed and injustice whilst having to complete their degrees in extraordinary circumstances. Shame on the government for throwing us to the side, and even more shame on private landlords whose bank accounts continue to grow as the financial stability and mental health of young, vulnerable renters rapidly declines.
Rianna Curran is 21 and a Law student at Newcastle University. She is Co-President of It Happens Here, a student lead society that tackles sexual violence and helps empower survivors of sexual assault