‘We are being treated as piggy banks’: Leeds students call for rent payment reform as they fork out on empty homes

Students in Leeds say they are being “treated as piggy banks” as they call for more support to help pay rent on empty homes.

By Martha Wilson
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 6:00 am

Throughout the pandemic, students have campaigned for rent rebates and contract releases from private landlords for accommodation they cannot live in due to lockdown restrictions.

University of Leeds students started a Cut the Rent campaign, asking for a 40 per cent rent reduction and early contract exits without any fees.

The university offered some students in halls of residence a rent rebate, but this left many private renters still struggling to pay and unable to live in their accommodation due to Covid restrictions.

Leeds student Pablo John, 22, and Lotti Morton, the community officer at Leeds University Union

Pablo John, 22, is a final year politics student at the University of Leeds.

He said the latest lockdown has affected him greatly as he returned to Kent at Christmas and couldn’t come back due to the national restrictions.

Pablo pays just under £400 a month for a room in Headingley to a private landlord, where he lives with seven other housemates.

He said: “We spoke to the landlord early on and they said they couldn’t delay the contract or offer us any help.

Many students who rent privately in Leeds have had to fork out on rent for homes in Headingley and Hyde Park, which they are unable to live in

“We’ve had no support from the Government. The Government offers help to homeowners, such as mortgage holidays, but renters get left behind.”

The Government has extended its temporary suspension on private rental evictions until the end of May, it was announced last week.

Landlords wanting to evict residential tenants will have to give them six months’ notice periods and will be banned from using bailiffs.

But students like Pablo are still required to pay rent despite lockdown restrictions and he has now spent more than £1,000 on rent for a house he can’t live in.

“My student loan is around £4,000, so it doesn’t even cover my rent”, Pablo added.

“I’m relatively lucky that I have been able to continue paying as I know many people who have really struggled.”

Pablo hopes to return to Leeds when the stay-at-home orders are lifted at the end of March.

He added: “It does really feel like we are being treated as piggy banks. I’m paying thousands to a university I can’t use and a house I can’t go to.”

The community officer at Leeds University Union (LUU), Lotti Morton, said while the eviction ban extension is welcomed, more needs to be done to help students who have been affected by the pandemic and cannot pay their rent or living costs.

“It’s important to recognise the challenges students are facing at the moment,” Lotti said.

“It needs to be acknowledged that students will struggle longer term. A lot of students use holidays and breaks to get extra income which hasn’t been possible now.

“We have a lot of estranged students and carers who don’t have the family support. It’s taken for granted by people in the sector.”

LUU has joined forces with Leeds Beckett Student Union and Leeds Trinity Student Union to campaign for extra help for private renters who have found themselves in financial difficulty throughout the pandemic and struggle to pay their rent or living costs.

Since December 15, LUU has awarded almost £50,000 from its Coronavirus Emergency Hardship Fund, which offers rent support to its students.

Almost half of that has been given out in March this year.

In February, the university unions wrote a letter with Alex Sobel, MP for Leeds North West, calling for private landlords to offer rent reductions, rebates and flexible contracts, but said they received no response.

Lotti said the pandemic has highlighted how inflexible private renting contracts for students can be.

She added: “In Scotland, students can give 28 days’ notice if their circumstances change due to Covid and we are calling for this too.”

Many students are asked to fork out advance rent payments over the summer before their student loans come in. This has been a huge problem for many students who use holidays and breaks to earn extra incomes, often in hospitality, Lotti said.

She added: “It’s a really big problem and we are campaigning for flexible arrangements over summer too”.

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