Updated 21st May 2020

TENANTS WANTING TO RETURN TO THEIR ACCOMMODATION AND COLLECT THEIR BELONGING

We said earlier that it was likely that it would be possible for students in England to return to their accommodation to collect their belongings. In England, on 21st May 2020  the Government have now given the following advice available on the media blog or Government website

The media blog copy reads

Can I collect my belongings from my student accommodation?

We know many of you are concerned about collecting your belongings from your term-time accommodation. That was not possible under the previous guidance but the government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy published on 11 May sets out a cautious roadmap to ease those measures in a safe and measured way.

While all of us should stay at home as much as possible to protect ourselves and other people, the strategy allows for certain necessary travel if people take precautions in line with the principles in Annex A of the strategy and other published guidance, such as on travel and social distancing.

This means that, if you are a student who left student accommodation in England and now wishes to travel back to that accommodation to recover your belongings, you can do so providing you continue to avoid public transport wherever possible and follow the latest travel and social distancing guidance of the nation where you are currently residing.

You should discuss a date and time to collect your belongings with your accommodation provider. Most higher education providers will contact tenants of university accommodation about arrangements, but if you rent privately-owned accommodation you should contact the provider directly. Please be patient if your collection time needs to be set for future weeks to allow for appropriate social distancing to be maintained.”

Please be aware that this guidance does not deal with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Many students simply left early for Easter and it has been estimated that 70% of student rooms still have possessions in them. Sometimes belongings have been neatly packed ready for collection but sometimes the flat has simply just been left, although most tenants have cleared the fridge and removed any raw or waste food.

It is important that the process of returning is structured to comply with Covid-Secure procedures. It will be important that students and/or parents contact their accommodation provider or landlord first to make any collection arrangements and it may be useful for providers taking the lead in that process to offer advice to deter significant numbers of parents just “turning up” to collect things.

Providers will need to operate a system for students to arrive to maintain social distancing and ensure that this is maintained both within the flat (where there are visitors) and in foyer, car parking and lift arrangements.

Many providers will be used to arranging time “slots” for arrival purposes, so this simply requires a similar effort.

CUBO has recently added some Guidance for the Collection of Student Belongings from University Managed Residences which may also be of use.

In most cases it will be worth stressing that there is no rush and tenants can take their time to collect their things.

There are a few other matters worthy considering and pointing out to students and their parents:

  • transport will be almost entirely by car and some parents/students will have a long “there and back” drive with only limited opportunities to stop for refreshments and toilet facilities. Many parents travelling long distances frequently break their journeys by staying part-way in a hotel and that will not be possible. Those returning should be made aware of the lack of facilities en-route
  • toilet facilities will be needed within the accommodation and suppliers should provide these together with appropriate Covid-Secure notices and cleaning routines
  • students should receive their end of tenancy information to ensure that they know to clean their room and the communal areas and ensure the property is left in a reasonable condition, free of waste and that the keys are returned in a timely manner.

If a tenant has left the accommodation and does not intend to return then the cost of packing and storing belongings will be significant and can be passed on to the tenant (at cost). It is helpful, if this applies, to give tenants an estimated cost of this being undertaken by a third party. Many students will need bespoke arrangements made. It is important, however, that tenants are made aware that this is a shared problem, not one for the accommodation provider alone.

RENT REFUNDS AND PAYMENTS

Many student housing suppliers were urged by students to either forgo rent or end contracts and stop charging rent and many universities and private providers decided to do this voluntarily. The Government’s formal position remains that outlined in MHCLG Guidance, which is issued across the whole rented sector it says  

“Tenants should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement to the best of their ability….Tenants who are unable to do so should speak to their landlord at the earliest opportunity.

In many if not most cases, the COVID-19 outbreak will not affect tenants’ ability to pay rent. If your ability to pay will be affected, it’s important to have an early conversation with your landlord. Rent levels agreed in your tenancy agreement remain legally due and you should discuss with your landlord if you are in difficulty.

If a landlord and tenant agree a plan to pay off arrears at a later date, it is important they both stick to this plan, and that tenants talk to their landlord immediately if they are unable to do so.”

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP, has had a number of questions about student rent refunds and is responding to those with a similar answer, the latest of which was on 12th May 2020 and which reads:

“The government urges universities and private hall providers to be fair in their decisions about rent charges for this period. A number of universities and large companies have waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts. Students who are tenants with individual private landlords can discuss with them the possibility of an early release from their tenancy agreement.

It is important to stress that accommodation providers should not have instructed any student to return home. If any accommodation provider did formally instruct a student to leave the property then it would be unacceptable to continue to charge student rents.

Students will continue to receive scheduled payments of loans towards their living costs for the remainder of the current 2019/20 academic year. Government guidance makes clear that tenants should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement to the best of their ability during the Covid-19 outbreak.

If a student thinks that their accommodation provider is treating them unfairly, they can raise a complaint under the accommodation codes of practice as long as their provider is a code member. The codes can be found at: www.thesac.org.ukwww.unipol.org.uk and: www.rla.org.uk.”

On 4th May 2020 Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP also wrote to students via UCAS saying: 

“I do appreciate that many students will have travelled to be with their parents or carers before the lockdown. The Government is encouraging universities and private hall providers to be fair and clear in their decisions about rent charges during this time. A number of large companies and universities have waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts.

Private accommodation providers who are facing difficulty may be able to access the support packages announced by the Chancellor to protect businesses. However, it is important to remember that not all landlords operate as a business – some may own just one or two properties, and that rent may be their entire income.

So, I encourage students to approach their landlords to discuss the possibility of an early release from their lease. As tenants, students are entitled to support if they are impacted by COVID-19, like repayable rent reductions or postponements, and assurances that eviction proceedings cannot begin against them for three months.

It is also important to stress that accommodation providers should not have instructed any students to leave – if an accommodation provider did formally instruct a student to leave the property, then it would not be acceptable to continue to charge student rents.

If you have further questions on accommodation do visit Unipol, who run the National Code for private student accommodation.”

COMPLAINTS UNDER THE NATIONAL CODES ABOUT RENT REFUNDS

Students have been given details of the complaints system operated by all three approved Codes and the number of complaints in this area has increased. In order to assist both tenants and accommodation suppliers it is important to be transparent about how these complaints will be dealt with.

In respect of the ANUK/Unipol National Code for Non-Educational Establishments the Code does not address matters relating to contractual obligations of landlords or tenants, as these are subject to statutory law.

Just as the Coronavirus pandemic was unforeseen, so there is no provision made for its effects within any of the National Codes. The Codes work by outlining members’ obligations and then seeking to enforce those undertakings and it is not possible simply to insert additional obligations to reflect the pandemic. Complaints about rent refunds will therefore fall outside of the current Code provisions and those lodging complaints will be informed of this.

The complaints system can and will be used in the following areas:

  1. matters relating to mis-selling or not providing contracted services
  2. setting unreasonable conditions for tenancy options. This would particularly be the case if a room had to be vacated in a period when Government “stay put” advice was in place
  3. unnecessarily rigid and inflexible conditions being set by a supplier in matters relating to the tenancy which fail to appreciate the individual circumstances of the complainant.

Finally, anyone making a complaint in this area will be asked if they think they have any exceptional circumstances where their case should be considered individually by a supplier. If the Codes Complaints Investigator feels that the exceptional circumstances merits individual consideration they will forward these to the supplier for such consideration and it is expected that these representations will be properly considered and responded to in a timely manner by the supplier.

Individual Code members will be written to in more detail about the methodology being followed by the Complaints Investigator.

Students can also get advice from their students’ union, which may be in a position to advocate on their behalf.

RENT REFUNDED OR FORGONE NOW OVER HALF A BILLION POUNDS

As of Friday 24th April 2020 Unipol has made an estimate of rent forgone or refunded in purpose built student accommodation. The sums given here are very conservative, basing the rent level on the unadjusted average bed space rent in the 2018 NUS Unipol Accommodation Cost Survey.

There are a number of assumptions behind these figures that can be consulted here. The figures exclude any hardship funds or arrangements made. Most universities and private providers have now completed their deliberations and that figure will be close to being an “end” figure.

  • Universities have refunded or forgone £395m
  • Private Sector PBSA have refunded or foregone £168m

a total of £563m.

UNIVERSITY REFUNDS

100% of Universities in Northern Ireland and Wales, and 90% in Scotland, have refunded, waived, or terminated third term contracts. Of the 112 universities in England, 60 have refunded, waived, or terminated third term contracts.

The remaining 52 universities:

  • have stated that they will continue with current contracts
  • do not own their own stock
  • are yet to make a decision.

The majority of these universities are small and/or independent institutions.

The National Codes Administrator is aware of the following universities giving a rent waiver, a refund or more flexible terms (to maintain the alphabetical nature of this list “University” has been added after the place name):

England

Anglia Ruskin University
Arts University Bournemouth
Bath University
Bath Spa University
Birmingham University
Birmingham City University
Bishop Grosseteste University
Bradford University
Brighton University
Bristol University
Brunel University
Buckingham University
Buckinghamshire New University
Canterbury Christ Church University
Central Lancashire University
Chichester University
Clare College Cambridge
Courtauld Institute of Art
Coventry University
Cumbria University
Derby University
De Montfort University
Durham University
East Anglia University
Edge Hill University
Essex University
Exeter University
Falmouth University
Greenwich University
Hartpury University
Hertfordshire University
Hull University
Imperial College London
Keele University
Kent University
King's College London
Lancaster University
Leeds University
Leeds Beckett University
Leeds Trinity University
Leicester University
Lincoln University
Liverpool University
Liverpool Hope University
Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
Liverpool John Moores University
Loughborough University
Manchester University Manchester Metropolitan University
Middlesex University
Newcastle University
Newman University
Northampton University
Northumbria University
Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham University
Oxford University
Plymouth Marjon University
Plymouth University
Portsmouth University
Queen Mary University of London
Reading University
Roehampton University
Rose Bruford College
Royal Agricultural University
Royal Holloway University of London
Royal Veterinary College
Sheffield University
Salford University
Solent University Southampton
Southampton University
Staffordshire University
Stranmillis University College
Sunderland University
Suffolk University
Surrey University
Sussex University
University of the Arts, London
University College London
University of Gloucestershire
Warwick University
West of England University - UWE Bristol, Bristol
Worcester University
York St John University
York University 

Northern Ireland

Queen's University Belfast
Ulster University

Scotland

Aberdeen University
Abertay University
Dundee University
Edinburgh University
Edinburgh Napier University
Glasgow University
Glasgow Caledonian University
Heriot-Watt University
Queen Margaret University Edinburgh
Stirling University 

Wales

Aberystwyth University
Bangor University
Cardiff University
Cardiff Metropolitan University
South Wales University
Swansea University 

No Rent Reduction But Offering Hardship funds

England

Arden University
Birkbeck University
Bolton University
BPP University
Bradford University
Leeds Arts University
London Metropolitan University 

Scotland

Strathclyde University

The NCA would welcome any updates to this list.

The reaction from universities has not been uniform. Almost all have had different approaches. Some universities offering to stop students paying rent at the beginning of April if they left by a given date were criticised when movement became difficult and subsequently changed those dates.

PRIVATE PROVIDER REFUNDS

Out of 115 private sector Purpose Built Student Accommodation providers in the ANUK/Unipol National Code (covering 322,220 bed spaces) this list gives the current position of 72% of the sector.

Waving, Refunding or Terminating Rent Obligations for the Third Term

Cass and Claredale
Chapter Living
Congregational Federation
Derwent Students
Host
iQ Student Accommodation
Kaplan
LIV Student
Nido Student
Scape
Shumei Eiko Ltd
Student Castle
Student Roost
U Student Group
Unite Students (includes Liberty Living)

Offering Hardship funds, Payment Plans or Making Adjustments on a Case by Case Basis

A2Dominion
Aparto
ASN Capital Lettings Ltd
Axo Student Living
BPS Developments
Beyond the box
BPS Developments
Campbell Property
Code Student Accommodation
Cotton House Management
Collegiate AC
Downing Students
Fawleybridge Student Living
FHP Students Living
Global students Accommodation
HomeLets Bath
Homes For Students
Fusion students
Iconic
Kexgill
Manor Village
The Stay Club Limited
Unilife
Uni2Rent
Valeo ULS Ltd
West one student accommodation
YPP (Yorkshire prosperity)

Large property managers can only reflect their clients’ position. Some have refunded rents whilst others have not.

Many providers report a significant number of students cancelling payments and where no refunds have been made there is often a high default rate on the final rental payment.

UNIPOL APPROACH

Unipol’s Board took its decisions on Friday 3rd and Wednesday 8th April 2020. Unipol’s own advice to its tenants is on open access and is regularly updated and its detailed position can be seen here.

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT PACKAGE FOR THE HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR

On 4th May the Government announced a package of measures aimed at supporting students and the HE sector. There is a web link to the Government measures here and the full statement can be accessed here.

There is no mention of any housing or accommodation issues in either of these announcements but the measures clearly envisage the next academic year progressing with considerable detail on admissions.

Not in the statement, but widely reported by the press, was that students would receive loans as normal, whether or not they were being taught on line or by physically attending institutions. Although this will be of comfort to universities it provides little comfort for accommodation providers who are unlikely to have any clear idea of residential need and the timings of that until more detailed information is made available by the Government in respect of the Covid 19 lock-down exit plans.

Some of the measures announced include:

Stabilising Admissions
This is a form of student number control but allows for some growth to reflect demographic change and local expansion.

UCAS
is developing a new, personalised Clearing system for students this summer. The A level result day has been confirmed as Thursday 13th August 2020.

Tuition Fee Loan Payments

The Student Loans Company will bring forward tuition fee payments to universities, expected to be worth £2.6bn, to help cash flow. This will not affect the loan liability, amount of interest charged to students or the timing of their maintenance loan payments.

International Education Strategy

DfE and DIT Ministers will chair a group, including key sector representatives, to consider how the can be updated to respond to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Comment

  • the temporary student number controls announced is not expected to have any significant effect on recruitment and 5% growth has been allowed for
  • there have been a number of press stories about home students being reluctant to go away to University but there is little evidence to support this and the general expectation is that the number of home undergraduate students attending University will increase
  • there is some evidence that home postgraduate student numbers will increase as many students are persuaded by their previous institution to remain and undertake a postgraduate degree (some lower fee offers have been made) and this would increase residential requirements from home postgraduates
  • estimates still vary about the fall in international student numbers but informed opinion is now if the view that this is likely to be nearer a 50% reduction than an 80% reduction.

THE 2020-2021 ACADEMIC YEAR

Suppliers’ thoughts are now turning to the effects of the pandemic on the forthcoming academic year and any disruption that may be caused to the normal lettings cycle.

There is no information about what is happening to the coming academic year and no decisions have been made within DfE or OfS about this. When those decisions are made they will appear here.

Most universities are planning to start their term in late September or early October. Some are planning a staggered start to the academic year (although normally first year students start earlier than returning students). Most universities are planning a mix of actual and virtual on-line teaching in case social distancing is still in force.

Some universities may start the year later than planned with freshers’ weeks not taking place at all. The compression of the academic year by a few weeks is possible, or students could study beyond June in 2020 for a couple of weeks but the loss of the first term would badly damage both the academic and social curriculum of new students.

Whatever happens, some disruption of the next residential year may take place, although its extend is not known and is unlikely to be known until mid-June when decisions are likely to be taken.

Because social distancing is likely to remain this will mean that accommodation operators will need to make a number on ongoing adjustments to maintain this: things will not simply “go back to normal”. Considerable thought is being given to this both within the University and the private sector and further information will be provided about this as things develop.

ADVICE ON SIGNING CONTRACTS AND FUTURE CONTRACTUAL OBLIGATIONS

Giving advice to students about signing contracts for next year is difficult. Most returning undergraduate students will already have signed contracts with landlords (mainly off-street but some private PBSA).

Many universities will be able to wait until later in the year to allocate their accommodation so they should be able to take the realities of when term starts into account but those universities operating partnership arrangements will have already moved into contracting for next year.

At present, Unipol is simply advising “if you are not happy signing a contract then don’t” try and negotiate a period of time (say a month) with the landlord where the will hold the accommodation whilst you work out what to do. In the case of students renting as groups under joint contracts a single failure to sign up (or a parent refusing to act as a guarantor) may bounce back on the other tenants rather than the landlord.

Some student suppliers are giving students who have not already entered into contracts a promise of flexibility. There are several of these but Student Roost was one if the first and most advanced.

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP has written to all prospective new students recently saying:

“Those of you planning to begin your studies away from home may well have concerns about the impact the coronavirus outbreak could have on your ability to move into your term-time accommodation next academic year.

I am pleased to tell you that a number of universities and private accommodation providers are already considering how these impacts could be managed in accommodation contracts for the 2020/21 academic year to give you confidence to make your plans.

I welcome the actions of many university and private accommodation providers in waiving and reducing rents this summer, along with their efforts to support and care for their students through this difficult period. This gives me confidence in their ability to help us all navigate the unprecedented circumstances that make the future so hard to predict.

Those who have already signed an accommodation contract for next year and, because of this virus, think it may no longer fit your requirements, should talk directly to your housing provider. If you run into problems, you will be able to raise a complaint under one of the accommodation codes of practice as long as your provider is a code member. (The codes are at: www.thesac.org.uk  www.unipol.org.uk and www.rla.org.uk)

While I am confident that consumer protections are in place to help with your plans to move into halls or private housing next academic year, it is still important that you carefully read your accommodation contract before putting pen to paper.”

The “consumer protections|” referred to relates to the guidance issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on how the coronavirus impacts on contract law, which is available here

This guidance has greater resonance for allocations and rentals undertaken through a University where there is, of necessity, a link between the rental and the course. Private sector providers, although letting to students, normally do so using general tenancy arrangements (assured Shorthold Tenancies). Even so, the CMA Guidance must be taken seriously and clearly there would be a problem if the reason for renting  student room was removed and a supplier tried to enforce full collection of rent.

SCOTLAND - STUDENTS CAN GIVE NOTICE TO LEAVE A CONTRACT

The Scottish Government has introduced new emergency coronavirus legislation in the Scottish Parliament relating to student accommodation. If the legislation is approved, it would put in place in Scotland:

  • a 7-day notice to leave period for those currently tied into a student accommodation contract; and
  • a 28-day notice to leave period for new agreements entered into.

GOING TO WORK

Following the Prime Minister’s statement (10th May 2020) and the launch of the UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy which encourages a return to work whilst emphasising the continuing importance of working from home where possible, Covid-Secure Guidance (11th May 2020) has been issued dealing with health and safety requirements and a risk assessment for Covid-19 working is required for all but the smallest employers

GOVERNMENT ADVICE ON PROVIDING SERVICES AND RENT PAYMENTS

On March 27th 2020 the Government, through MHCLG, issued specific advice for landlords and tenants and this included the following key statement:

The full text of this advice can be found here.

There is a lot of useful information in the specialist documents including a list of urgent health and safety issues which need attention, even at this time.

This includes (but is not limited to):

  • if there is a problem with the fabric of the building, for example the roof is leaking
  • if a boiler is broken, leaving tenants without heating or hot water
  • if there is a plumbing issue, meaning tenants do not have washing or toilet facilities
  • if white goods such as fridge or washing machine have broken, meaning tenants are unable to wash clothes or store food safely
  • if there is a security-critical problem, such as a broken window or external door
  • if equipment a disabled person relies on requires installation or repair.

There are areas where repairs ought to be carried out and, in the case of difficulties, this guidance should be drawn to the attention of contractors to explain their obligations to clients.

This fails to address the issue of students returning home and not requiring accommodation and much of the help flagged is not available to students.

COUNCIL TAX

There are concerns that those private suppliers who end contracts early can be hit with a heavy council tax bill on their empty rooms. If the government wished to support those offering waivers an instruction to councils not to charge providers council tax would be helpful. Government agrees that as English local authorities do not currently levy council tax revenue from rooms in occupation by students this reassurance would not detract from existing revenues and is worth consideration.

NUS, the British Property Federation and Unipol, wrote to the Government asking for an assurance that Council Tax would not be charged on properties where students had been released from their contracts as part of the reaction to the pandemic and the Government response is disappointing saying they have no plans to do this. The letter of response can be consulted here.

A WORD OF SUPPORT TO STAFF WORKING IN STUDENT ACCOMMODATION

Unipol wants to place on record, and pay tribute, to the many staff who are working hard, sometimes at risk, to maintain student accommodation in a  safe and regulatory compliant manner. Even though occupancy has fallen, many student flats are still occupied and most buildings are fully up and running and that requires proper staff cover.

In the areas of tenancy relations, mental health support and financial administration, far from diminishing the workload has dramatically increased to respond to student and parental needs and the complexities of rent adjustments.

Although the efforts of many staff are not properly appreciated - Unipol wanted to say “Well done” to those who are achieving so much in difficult circumstances.

VERIFICATION UNDER THE NATIONAL CODE

Following a recent meeting of the Audit Panel, verifications are due to restart from May with the verification process being undertaken, where possible, on line. In person visits will also take place if necessary following a risk assessment. In person visits will need to maintain social distancing and verifiers will not visit occupied flats.

NEW BUILDINGS

Many new buildings are being affected by the delays inherent in the current lockdown which is affecting the organisation of work on site, the number of workers being employed and problems in supply chains.

Much work on developing new buildings has stopped and so there will be a pipeline delay in about 2-3 years.

These delays, once the current problems are over, will result in accommodation shortages being experienced in certain key locations. In others, the market will cool providing a useful time for reflection on over-development.

The National Code proposals for late buildings that are still subject to consultation would not have come into effect for the 2020-2021 academic year but are planned to effect summer 2021. In the event that the 2020-2021 academic year is disrupted they will be postponed for a further year.

A new Protocol on Late Buildings for summer 2020 will be issued soon, recognising the difficulties that the construction industry has faced during the Coronavirus lockdown. The Protocol will bring clarity as to how the Code will interpret and operate the relevant existing clauses within the Codes over the summer period.