Student renter Anna McAree reports on the crisis facing many students as COVID-19 forces them out of houses they are now struggling to pay for.
As the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic began, the impact on students was felt very swiftly. Adequate provisions had not been put in place to prepare students and university representatives for the months during and after the pandemic.
Many students had only hours or days to organise travel home, with added pressure on those studying abroad who had to ensure they could get home before their home country’s borders had closed.
Once students tackled that barrier, however, problems worsened as the issue of continuing rent for unused student houses quickly arose. It is not possible for students to return to their student houses even if they wish to do so, yet the majority are forced to pay full rent for an empty room.
Rent for empty rooms
Rent is one of the issues most raised with student representatives. To focus on the reality facing students in the north of Ireland in particular, at both the University of Ulster and Queens’ University Belfast, students have made it clear that Universities have failed to put in place provisions to protect students from the demands of student letting agents and private landlords.
The fact that many landlords can benefit from government mortgage freezes, and VAT and rates relief, is an added slap in the face. Landlords given a mortgage freeze while actively chasing students for rent are being allowed to profit from the crisis. It is an act of greed from those often responsible for substandard housing, which is being aided by a Stormont Executive unwilling to take measures to protect student renters.
Aoife Kelly, People Before Profit Magee representative, backs this up by adding that while demands are being made for full rent, many students have lost part time jobs. Since student rent often exceeds the payment granted through student loans, they are left totally unable to pay up.
Worse, students are excluded from applying for Universal Credit, a basic demand which the Sinn Féin Minister for Communities has so far refused to grant. Universal Credit is the source of many more COVID-19 scandals, as people in need are being left for weeks without payments which often don’t cover their outgoings.
Student Unions fight back
Students in the North are organising with their student union representatives to apply pressure on the Stormont Executive, letting agents, and landlords to commit to rent reductions for those who are unable to live in their accommodation for the rest of their contracted months.
Others, including NUS-USI, have agitated for a rent suspension for all students throughout the duration of this crisis, a penalty-free chance to end tenancies early, and for measures to support students to be backdated to the beginning of the crisis. PBP Cllr Eamonn McCann brought a motion to Derry and Strabane District Council, calling for support for the demands.
Yet, while there has clearly been a massive shift to financially help businesses, by both the Stormont Executive and Boris’ Tories Government in Westminster, the same shift has not come for students and the impact is being felt most sharply by working class students who struggled to make ends meet before the crisis.
Lack of political will
Clearly more support is needed from the government, and it is fair to say the sluggish approach is a result of lacking political will. Political parties need to do much more to demand financial relief for students, and implement it where they are in power.
Unfortunately this does not appear likely in the near future. When People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll raised the issue of student renters while bringing amendments to an emergency bill for renters at Stormont, he was rebuked by Sinn Féin MLAs, saying his comments would falsely raise the hopes of students.
Clearly this wouldn’t be a concern if their Minister, or her colleague, the DUP Minister for the Economy responsible for Higher Education, were planning to implement the demands of students, to ease their financial stress.
With action unlikely to come easily from Stormont, therefore, solidarity among students,and a willingness to step up campaigning and to call out those in power who will not heed our demands will be key to winning basic demands. Solidarity among students has been incredible thus far and will no doubt play an important role.
And our demands should go beyond our basic needs to deal with the pandemic; the issue of student housing has long plagued students within Higher Education, particularly as Universities pursue privatisation and market policies which put profit ahead of the welfare of students and university staff. What campaigns and solidarity networks are developed during this crisis should embolden the campaign for free, accessible education which puts students and staff before profit, even after lockdown has ended.