Life in lockdown has been difficult for us all and with universities across the country closing their doors, it has been especially challenging for student landlords.
For many of you, used to the annual influx of youngsters looking for a home in university towns and cities, this may be the first time the concept of voids has even crossed your mind.
I have been lucky. Although, like many of you, I have had to write-off and defer rents during the crisis, London – where I have my student HMOs – is still attractive to young people desperate to swap home for life in the big city, whatever that may look like.
Despite this I received my first call from student tenants asking me to waive payments almost as soon as the term ‘mortgage deferral’ was uttered by the Government.
This is despite the group being unaffected financially by the crisis.
While I made it clear that if any of them had difficulties paying that were related to coronavirus these would be taken into account, I also told them there would be no waiving or deferral of rent as a matter of course.
All of them are still living in the property and all still able to pay their rent.
It is this attitude, however, that is symptomatic of what I see as a growing problem.
The promotion of the landlord/tenant relationship as that of big guy/little guy, seems to be gaining traction to the point where tenants unaffected by Covid financially think it is acceptable refuse to pay rent.
The fact that courts are (currently) closed and will face a huge backlog of cases when they reopen may also be contributing to this change in attitude.
We need to reset.
Hardship, whether related to coronavirus or otherwise, is not confined to tenants. At the NRLA we have heard of landlords who have been left homeless after their tenants stopped paying rent.
The response that ‘that’s the risk landlords take’ would be deemed outrageous if we applied it to tenants losing their jobs, yet this attitude is seemingly acceptable towards landlords.
Contracts need to be taken seriously and I know many of you feel let down by universities which – despite relying heavily on the PRS to house their students – effectively turned their back on landlords when coronavirus hit.
Many institutions put pressure on landlords to waive rent they were legitimately owed after they closed their doors and students were effectively ‘sent home’.
This was while student landlords across the country were living in a state of limbo, not knowing if or when universities and colleges would re-open – or what would happen as regards tenancies for the next academic year.
In terms of students’ contractual obligations the NRLA has had some success in driving the message home.
I personally wrote to Universities UK stressing the Government’s clear guidance – echoed by the NRLA – that students, “should continue to pay rent and abide by all other terms of their tenancy agreement to the best of their ability.”
The trade body agreed to pass the message on to its university members.
The Government also officially confirmed students are NOT automatically entitled to repayable rent reductions or postponement as was falsely claimed.
Starting to look forward, moving out of lockdown I think it is important that we focus on the positives.
These have been dark times for us all, but universities are big business and it is in their interests to re-open – safely – to students as soon as possible.
Students, for their part, largely want to attend lectures and seminars in person – and enjoy the full university experience, socialising and living with friends away from home.
For those of you still battling to recoup arrears I would advise you to keep lines of communication open with student tenants and those due to move in.
See if it is possible to work out a payment plan with those who still owe rent and keep in touch with those due to move in.
Some universities have already said they will open campuses so that students can attend seminars and tutorials in small groups.
This is good news and I am confident that others will follow suit.
It is in everyone’s best interests to safely reopen the education sector – and student homes are a vital part of that.
As to the strength of the rental contract it is clear that urgent reform is needed.
Going forward, the Housing Minister Christopher Pincher has promised positive changes that will strengthen landlords’ rights. We look forward to working with him to deliver this.