$800 for a Room You Can’t Use? Students Balk at Rent During U.K. Lockdown

National lockdowns across the U.K. have left many college students who returned home for the holidays stuck there, on the hook to pay rent for empty rooms back at school.

The added — and in many cases, expensive — frustration for British students is fueling threats of rent strikes. 

What has angered them is timing. In December, the government said it would relax Covid restrictions during the Christmas holiday. Many students followed safety protocols put in place by the government and their universities and returned home. 

But last week, officials announced a lockdown that barred most students from returning to campus. For many, that will mean starting the new university term — which in most cases would begin after the lockdown was announced — from home, even though they are still paying for accommodation back at school.

Their woes parallel those of students across the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, many were abruptly told to return home and study online. The U.S. threatened to limit student visas. And this fall many universities attempted to open in-person classes, only to see outbreaks erupt.

“If you paid for any other service and it wasn’t happening, you’d get refunded,” said Katie O’Kelly, a master’s student at University College London.

The 23-year-old signed a 12-month contract for a privately rented room in London last year. She went home for Christmas, assuming she would be able to return to her accommodation after the holiday. But the sudden announcement of lockdown rules means her rented room is still empty because she is home in Berkshire, about an hour away from the city.

O’Kelly estimates she’ll pay a total of 7,200 pounds ($9,700) this year in rent for a room that so far has been used much less than she imagined. 

Similar frustrations are pushing thousands of students across the country to threaten strikes. Organizers say some 15,000 have joined the Rent Strike Now campaign, which encourages students to withhold rent on accommodation they cannot use during the Covid lockdown.

On Monday, Unite Students, the U.K.’s largest private provider of student accommodation, announced a 50% discount on rent for eligible students for four weeks. (In Britain, it is not uncommon for students who attend public universities to live in dormitories run by private firms.)

Some universities have also started to respond. University College London said it will not charge rent to students who are unable to return to dormitories or other university-managed accommodation. The University of Manchester, Cambridge and Exeter University have said the same.

The problem is the country’s student-accommodation market is fragmented. That makes it is difficult to mandate change unilaterally. Private companies like Unite Students provide 25% of housing in the U.K., but 20% of students rent directly from their universities. Around 25% are commuter students and 30%, including O’Kelly, live in private houses with multiple residents, often run by small, mom-and-pop landlords.

“Now is the time for the government to seriously consider the financial implications for students and institutions and what support they will provide,” a spokesperson from Universities U.K., a representative organization for British universities, said in an emailed statement.

Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested at a press conference that the government is considering some sort of support.

“I think we need to look very hard at the deal that students are getting,” he said. “We need to see what more we can do to support students and to help them in what has been a very, very difficult time.”

If and until that happens, this is what experts say students stuck in limbo should consider:

  • Understand the terms of your lease. Make sure to check your tenancy agreement as some agreements have “get-out” clauses which allow renters to cut their tenancies short.
  • Contact your landlord. It’s worth talking to your landlord to explain your situation as he or she may agree to give you a discount or come up with an alternative plan for payment. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Having a polite conversation can also keep the temperature low, which might not happen if you start by threatening to withhold rent. 
  • Check if you qualify for student support. The government is providing a fund of up to £20 million to help students studying in England in need of support during the pandemic. Many universities also offer hardship funds.

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