Student Accommodation – Here’s the problem.

Picture this; it’s September first, and you’re moving into your new flat – fresh into your second year at university and experiencing letting for the first time after a year of complete uncertainty. This was me.I got the train down the night before, and stayed in a hotel overnight, renting a man-and-van for the morning to move the little stuff I had in after it had spent the summer in a storage unit.I was told I couldn’t move in early because of ‘refurbishment and maintenance’.But when I got there, it was worse than a nightmare.I arrive at 9AM in the morning after collecting my keys to find a building in shambles. A banister that had come off, a garden full of rubbish, mouldy and peeling walls, broken appliances, and damaged furniture.

The first thing I do is call the company – to paraphrase, I ring and ask “what the $%@& this is” and ask them to send a representative down immediately.When the company director arrives I was informed that the landlord had decided not to do any work to the property as they had sold it two days prior to our move-in date and we hadn’t been told of it, hence the garden full of rubbish and crumbling walls.Even now we are still discovering issues with the property – most recently that our microwave has a massive hole in it due to rust, which somehow passed its PAT testing a few months prior. Our hoover didn’t work, our tumble dryer doesn’t either, and we had to get our window fixed as it didn’t open in the kitchen – a massive ventilation issue and hazard.Communication has also been scarce between us and our letting agency, we constantly report the issues that need fixing and ill often do we get responses. One of my flatmates had to capture a rat that was in our kitchen after having previously reported it (although I am told this is an issue with terraced properties during the winter). Mysterious puddles of water also appear on the kitchen floor with no known cause.After four months of reporting issues and asking, we had our hoover replaced, and had three desks and two chairs delivered out of the 4 of both requested – still missing the rest.

When we decided to talk to the agency about rent rebates, the communication was even less. I had to turn up in person and demand a meeting after a month of no response to emails and follow-ups. We were told that due to the location, we couldn’t have a reduced rent – but after negotiations were told that it would be likely that we could receive a reduction of £5 per week, with any ask of a lump sum likely being refused by the landlord.
It struck me that it can’t just be us who are experiencing problems with our property – and I wanted to find out why students are mistreated in accommodation.But first, I had to find out how many students this affects.

STUDENT EXPERIENCES

Many students reported minor issues such as mould and rats and appeared to be quite frequent – even having experienced these myself last year inside campus accommodation. However, many stories have shown a similar experience to my own and much worse.Here are some of their stories.One student I spoke to upon arrival into their accommodation reported having “a broken microwave”, and “a toaster that sparks so much when used that it sets off the kitchen’s fire alarms”. More concerningly, the flat reported two days into their tenancy in September that their “water was constantly cloudy and warm” and it was refused investigation. At the end of October when the water was finally checked, the students were notified that there was “bacteria in the water and it was unsafe to drink and shower in”. It was then ‘treated’ but still remained off limits to the students, and so are now having to drink bottled water and travel outside of their flat to use other showers in the meantime. As of now, they are replacing all of the pipes in the flat, and during this have uncovered asbestos in the walls.They only moved one flat of nine students out of the building, leaving the other five remaining floors to put up with just ‘not showering’, making 45 other very unhappy students. These students now deal with a “regular weekly disturbance in the form of a check-up [in which] maintenance comes to check each rooms water”, which is making the students very uncomfortable.When it comes to the asbestos issue, the students weren’t initially told it had been found, and only found out through an enquiry with the maintenance man assigned to the flat at the time. Following this they emailed the head of accommodation who told them that “as long as the asbestos wasn’t disturbed it won’t be harmful”.

To the students in the building, this is a massive concern as asbestos causes cancer. The pipes that are being worked on are inside the walls containing asbestos.

Communication between the students and the accommodation team have apparently been “poor to non-existent”, and are adding onto their anxieties.This wasn’t the only student who experienced issues with showers and hygiene. This student, who works student accomodation and also wishes to remain unnamed says that she had a “broken shower for a month”, and experienced “minimal communication with no real provision of an alternative” until it was pushed desperately for. Also telling me that “they could easily go a week and hear nothing”, and when they needed a temporary shower, the response they got was “the sports centre has showers y’know”. The students living in the flat also filed a report on silverfish which “wasn’t acknowledged for several weeks”, and has had “constant battles with mould” in several student rentals which to the best of her knowledge “still haven’t been dealt with”. During their tenancy, several appliances had broken down, but were however “swiftly replaced without hassle”.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous is living in a shared house of four, that upon arrival on the 1st of September found their “microwave in the bin”, blocked drains and sinks, a dirty toilet that wouldn’t flush, windows in bedrooms that wouldn’t open, a faulty toaster, a shower with no sealant which became unusable as it would leak and cause water damage, and mould. According to the student, they had to “continually pester the letting agency they were with to actually fix the issues, dealing with terrible communication throughout”. He confided in me that after such a difficult year, moving into the property was a final straw. “We should be moving into a house that was liveable”. He found the company very unhelpful, and the whole situation added “more stress to his life than a student should have to deal with”.

According to the National Student Accomodation Survey 2021 (savethestudent.org)

Many students are also victims of false advertisement, with a Plymouth student being told that they could attain a parking permit with the property by the estate agent in viewings, only for the company to later backtrack and claim that this was untrue, ignoring any follow-up emails the group of students sent to the company after being told their claim was refuted. The student was told that they would have to “check the council permit website to see the zone map and restrictions” so that they could find a place to park outside of the permit zones as “all roads opposite are permit parking”. She reported that all parking around the house was either permit parking, or pay by hour – which has ended up costing the student around £540 a month. The letting agent recommended “Looking around the roads for parking” instead of apologising or fixing the issue for the students involved. The parents of the student tried to take the issue further with the company, but this was also deflected at every turn, with the company just suggesting to “complete a complaint form”. This same student recently experienced a “leak in their roof dripping through the light sockets and down walls” which they believe to either be a “burst pipe or a faulty seal in the upstairs shower”. They immediately contacted the emergency maintenance team about it, but “have yet to receive a response after three weeks”.

According to the National Student Accomodation Survey 2021 (savethestudent.org)

HOW STUDENTS FEEL ABOUT THIS
Universally, the students I’ve spoken to all agree that they feel undervalued and taken advantage of inside their student accommodation, citing that they feel it is because companies don’t believe students understand their rights within housing. These were just some of the stories that the many students I spoke to had to tell. Across the country, students are mistreated in accommodation, but feel trapped and taken advantage of.

This is even more evident given the year many students have just had with the Coronavirus pandemic, with most being unable to view the properties they would be moving into, only having seen pictures or videos of the property on the company’s websites. This has left a number of students with a lot of questions come move-in day.

STUDENT ROOST
However, speaking to Sophie Howard of Student Roost, an award-winning accommodation provider and No. 1 rated ‘Best Rated Student Accommodation Provider’ by StudentCrowd in a study of over 23,000 accommodation reviews; it seems not all students have experienced problematic accommodation. They boast individual student support, no hidden costs, 24/7 security and refunds should circumstances change in all 20 cities it resides in. In 2020, it was named Student Accommodation Operator of the Year at the RESI Awards and Operator of the Year at the Best in Class awards.Due to being a private letting company similar to The Student Housing Company in Plymouth who house students in Beckley Point and across the UK, it appears that experiences of the students differ between companies, with larger companies having a better understanding of student requirements – and respecting them more.Here are some of the things students living in Student Roost accomodation have said.Kimberley, The Heights in Birmingham:“I stayed at home [for first year] but I knew I wanted to move out but not where I wanted to go. I experienced doing the whole back and forth – waking up at 6am for a 9am lecture, catching a bus then a train and another bus. It was a bit of a havoc and not having a social life on top of it made things more difficult. It felt like I was going to work, to lectures and back, it didn’t feel like I was a teenager having a uni social life.”“I moved into The Heights in July and the social experience has been great. They have different kinds of events here like karaoke night and BBQs – I did a few viewings before I chose The Heights and other accommodations don’t have the social spaces, so that’s one of the highlights. It doesn’t feel like an accommodation personally, it feels like a young adult that’s moved out and is living by themselves.”“There was a period when I first moved in when I was kind of a bit shocked. Having conversations with the team made me feel normal that I was feeling like this, that it was a common thing. They’d always reassure me and it’s a mutual understanding – I wouldn’t have expected to have such great communication and relationship with the people who work here.” Ming Qu, St James’ Point in Newcastle:“The location, price and environment are perfect for students. During the stay, you can feel Student Roost’s care for every resident. I could not feel more comfortable during my four-year stay here.”

These contrast many student views on accommodation countrywide within university accommodation and with smaller accommodation companies as they seemingly have less success. Smaller universities will have a smaller budget to allocate to accommodation maintenance, and likely had less finances while initially building onsite accommodation, and smaller letting companies tending to have to remain the middleman between landlords and their tenants in most instances, as they often lack their own purpose built accomodation or the finances to procure their own accomodation. Speaking to the director of student accomodation, Sam Price, at A Home After Halls, a student letting company, had this to say on the unique place letting companies hold between Landlords and Students.

“We sometimes manage everything for the landlord, meaning the landlord has no contact with the students, sometimes we hand the students directly over to the landlord, and just advertise the property. There is a whole mix of different procedures. Oftentimes landlords will provide us with a budget we can use for maintenance and property replacement, say £250 for an example – but we can bypass anything that is a legal requirement.” From what I understand, this can be a difficult position to be in, as sometimes, the landlord may resist the replacement of items as it requires money coming out of their pocket. “Its our job to make it the best experience for the student we can, but we also have to follow the stipulations set in place by landlords. If it’s not a legal requirement and its something that the landlord will have to spend their money on, the landlord may not want us to do it”.

THE LAW

Most properties that students live in are called HMOs, which are houses in multiple occupation – a larger property that’s home to three or more unrelated people, that are sharing facilities such as a toilet, laundry areas, bathroom and kitchen. HMOs are legally required to have a fire extinguisher on each floor, a fire escape, and at least one smoke alarm on each floor. Any visit to the property must also first be followed by a 24-hour notice of entry – unless its an emergency. All landlords must also check gas appliances are safely maintained and installed, and submit an annual check from a registered engineer, also legally being required to make sure all electrical equipment is safe and PAT tested. You are liable for any damage you do to the property during the tenancy and subletting is against almost every tenancy agreement, and will likely get you evicted if caught.

The landlord is responsible for the structure of the property, plumbing, utilities such as water, heating and boiler issues, with smaller issues such as battery replacement and lightbulbs being down to the tenants.

As most tenancies will tell you, breaching the tenancy, being late on rent, not maintaining the property, noise complaints and using the property for illegal activities will result in being evicted.

A good rule of thumb to have is to leave the property exactly how it was when you arrived, avoiding damage to the walls with tape or nails.

Most students will have an 11-12 month assured shorthold tenancy or fixed let agreement, which cannot be ended early unless the tenancy stipulates otherwise – usually if a student were to move out before this time is over, they would have to find a replacement tenant, or continue to pay for the accomodation.

WHAT CAN STUDENTS DO?

First and foremost if you think the landlord or letting agency is in breach of your tenancy agreement, students should contact the company or landlord directly first to communicate with them and make them aware, and should contact their university to see if they can speak to a member of staff that deals with accomodation specifically, to see what can be done, many universities also have a Student Union, which may be able to provide assistance to the student. Outside of this, it is worth contacting the local citizens Advice Bureau for advice – hopefully all of the above should be able to fix the issues at hand, and if not, show you the best cause of action to dealing with the issue.

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