Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

‘This is about survival’: The students and tenants going on rent strike during coronavirus lockdown

Withholding rent may have seemed extreme two months ago, but now many tenants simply can’t afford to pay, Emma Snaith writes

Tuesday 05 May 2020 14:40 BST
Graffiti reading ‘Rent strike now’ near Turnpike Lane station in London
Graffiti reading ‘Rent strike now’ near Turnpike Lane station in London (Getty/iStock)

Just before the coronavirus lockdown was announced, the sink in Tama Knight’s student property in London overflowed, filling the kitchen with used water and cutting off the power in the whole building.

Fearing she couldn’t effectively self-isolate while sharing facilities in a huge communal block amid the maintenance issues, she moved in with her partner and faced paying double rent.

Now, she is now one of thousands across the country who have joined a rent strike in protest at university accommodation providers who have refused to cancel bills during lockdown. As the movement gains momentum, many non-student tenants are also negotiating with landlords for rent reductions or starting to withhold rent until the pandemic subsides.

“We’re fighting for the students who face dropping out of university if they have to pay rent, for the people who have lost their jobs and the people who need to self-isolate to protect themselves and their families,” the 24-year-old LSE masters student from Canada said.

“For many of us on rent strike, this is about survival.”

Unable to return to her family home in Toronto, with both her mother and sister at high risk from coronavirus, Tama joined more than 300 students in asking their private accommodation provider to waive rents. She said they were compelled to go on rent strike after accommodation provider Sanctuary Students refused to discuss their demands.

While many universities have waived rent for the final term of the year, or even the whole year, many private providers have refused to release students from their contracts. According to the Office for Students, only 19 per cent of students live in university-managed accommodation, with the vast majority renting from private providers.

A spokesperson for Sanctuary Students, a subsidiary of the major housing association group Sanctuary, said: “While we understand that some students and parents are disappointed, the decision [to not cancel student contracts] was made with the wider interests of our customers and communities at the forefront of our minds.”

Posters advocating a rent strike in Bristol (PA) (Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images)

“We continue to house a significant number of national and international students in our properties in various locations and for many of these, our accommodation is their primary home. All our sites remain open, and without our accommodation, these students may become homeless. It is essential we continue to provide them with support staff and access to a safe, secure, managed place to live.”

Sanctuary Students added that students will receive student loan payments as normal and says they are offering flexible payment options to students with financial concerns.

But Tama pointed out that for many students, their maintenance loans do not cover their rent and they have lost part-time jobs vital to funding their living costs. Meanwhile, international students do not receive student loans at all.

“It is ridiculous to expect all students to be able to pay their rent as normal in the middle of a global pandemic,” Tama said. “There’s this overwhelming feeling of being left behind, by the private providers, by the universities, by the government.”

Charlotte, a 29-year-old freelancer from London, also feels that the struggles many renters face during the pandemic are being ignored by the government.

It feels like we’re still being used to make a profit from in the middle of a pandemic

After she and her partner lost more than 80 per cent of their income since lockdown began and discovered they were ineligible for the government’s self-employment income support scheme, they started withholding rent from their landlord.

“My landlord refused to accept that we had no savings and just couldn’t pay the rent that month. They said they were trying to be compassionate, but suggested we take out a loan to pay the rent. It feels like we’re still being used to make a profit from in the middle of a pandemic.”

While she feels relieved that the government suspended evictions during lockdown, she said renters “are still treated like second-class citizens, with government help correlating to how many assets you have”.

Last month, the government announced a three-month suspension on evictions to protect tenants who have lost income due to coronavirus. Landlords are also able to apply for a three-month mortgage holiday if their tenants are under financial strain.

However, housing campaigners say that this does not go far enough, and are calling on the government to suspend all rent payments and waive all arrears until the pandemic is over.

The London Renters Union claims that unless these measures are introduced, thousands of renters could see their tenancies end as soon as the emergency eviction suspension does. The group has raised concerns that many renters are not eligible for the government’s income support schemes – and even for those who are entitled to 80 per cent of their salary, this might not be enough to cover rent as well as food and other essentials.

The New Economics Foundation has also recommended that private rent should be suspended to help around 1.2 million at renters at risk of losing their jobs during the pandemic. The think tank’s report recommends a three-month suspension to protect those facing severe financial hardship.

In an open letter addressed to health secretary Matt Hancock and housing secretary Robert Jenrick, the LRU also warned that the government’s policies are “undermining public health” as people are forced to leave the house because of the pressure to continue to pay rent.

Dr Alex Baker, a postdoctoral researcher in urban studies and planning at the University of Sheffield, also warns that we could see “a fresh wave of evictions and claims once the courts are back in session”.

“Secondly, rent arrears don’t go away,” he said. “Many, if not most, tenancies include charges for arrears, and there’s nothing to stop arrears and interest accruing during this time.

“In practice, while the [evictions] suspension keeps people off the streets right now, it may do more to help ‘flatten the curve’ for the court system than it does to protect tenants from eviction.”

Meanwhile, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called for the government to make up shortfalls in rent payments, and said the capital faced a “ticking timebomb of debt, arrears and widespread evictions” once the emergency measures are lifted.

 While the evictions suspension keeps people off the streets right now, it may do more to help ‘flatten the curve’ for the court system than it does  protect tenants

But a government spokesperson said it had put in place “unprecedented measures to support tenants facing financial hardship because of coronavirus”.

“Tenants still have an obligation to pay their rent and should continue to do so wherever possible,” they said. “We urge any tenants who may be experiencing problems to contact their landlord at the earliest opportunity and for parties to reach an agreement if there are issues with payment.”

Meanwhile, many students feel left behind without access to the government’s income support schemes. In response, the National Union of Students (NUS) has called on the government to supply a £60m hardship fund to students with living costs, such as rent, during lockdown.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it encourages universities and private landlords “to consider students’ interests and fairness in their decisions about rent charges for this period”.

They said the DfE has worked with the Office for Students to help universities use an existing £46m across April and May towards their hardship funds for students, including international students.

A white sheet bearing the slogan ‘rent strike now’ hangs from a window in Hackney, east London (Rent Strike London) (London Rent Strike)

They also noted that those in part-time employment may be eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and students will continue to receive maintenance loan payments.

Unless more government support is offered, many students and tenants feel compelled to join strike action or demand rent reductions in order to protect themselves. But as they push back, some say their demands are being met with derision and aggression by landlords.

More than 100 residents living in a block in Somerford Grove, east London, are now considering going on rent strike after their request for a 20 per cent reduction in rent was refused, and the letting agent refused to agree that no tenant would be evicted during the pandemic.

The letting agent, Tower Quay, told the tenants that their request was “unreasonable” and said they should use the money they would have spent on lunches and holidays to pay the full amount due. The agent added that “wear and tear in properties is increasing” during lockdown, which meant that there was no justification for a reduction in rent.

Marc Sutton, 41, one of the residents who signed the letter, described Tower Quay’s response as “completely out of touch”.

“I think I’m very typical of residents in the building with many of us working as freelancers or with multiple jobs in gig work,” he said. “We’re finding fewer jobs and they’re paying less and less, and some tenants are now on universal credit.”

Marc added that since residents sent the letter requesting a rent reduction, the landlord has stepped up security around the block with people being “filmed by guards”.

“Several residents have said they feel like they’re in prison and a few who haven’t been involved have told me they’re having panic attacks and feel afraid to leave their flats,” he said.

Tower Quay did not respond to a request for comment. There is no suggestion that the landlord, billionaire John Christodolou, knew about the contents of the letter.

Meanwhile, students at Warwick University said some private landlords have suggested they should take out personal credit loans or that their parents go on universal credit to help them pay rent.

Alfie Brepotra, a second-year management student at Warwick and one of the organisers of the student rent strike group that has gathered 650 members, said: “Landlords are taking advantage of students who are in a very precarious position during the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that parents should apply for universal credit, especially given that the amount that two adults might receive would only just cover some students’ rent.”

He added: “Lining the pockets of property investment companies and landlords is not our priority in these difficult times.”

While Warwick University has cancelled contracts for students renting on campus, many of those renting off-campus from private landlords are still obliged to pay. However, many of the rentals will have been arranged via the university’s property management agency.

Lining the pockets of property investment companies and landlords is not our priority in these difficult times

A Warwick University spokesperson said: “Off-campus renting during the current situation continues to present complex challenges to everyone concerned.

“Our principal and immediate focus is on student hardship, ensuring that students with real financial support needs can access the support they need through the university’s students hardship scheme, rather than taking any other action that could lead them into potentially costly, and lengthy, legal disputes, particularly with private sector landlords.”

Despite the pushback they have faced from landlords, many rent strikers hope that the movement forged during the pandemic will help them push for greater protections for tenants once it is over.

David Murphy, one of the organisers of the Lancaster University rent strike and a communications officer for Acorn renters’ union, said the coronavirus crisis has “laid bare the power disparity between landlords and tenants”.

“In our case, we’ve seen the university has put its desire to make profit over the wellbeing of its students during a public health emergency,” he said.

The 22-year-old international relations masters student added: “People tend to romanticise the idea of a rent strike and have it as your pinnacle goal, but ultimately we want to get better protections for renters even after the pandemic is over.”

David said that in the last few weeks, the Lancaster branch of Acorn tenants’ union has seen a big intake of members as more than 200 students joined the rent strike. The strikers are calling for cancellation of rents for summer term university accommodation for all students, not just those who have completely vacated their rooms.

A spokesperson from Lancaster University said: “As part of our plan to support students through Covid-19, Lancaster University took the decision to offer reduced accommodation fees to many of our students in university-managed accommodation this term. We appreciate this is a very challenging time for our community and we hope this helps ease the financial burden for some students.”

But for many renters like David, access to affordable housing was precarious long before coronavirus. And as we face the economic fallout of lockdown with up to 6.5 million job losses, they say more will need to be done to protect the rights of renters.

Charlotte, who has lost 80 per cent of her income since lockdown began, said: “The pandemic has created a window for change for renters.

“It makes you realise how much there is to fight for, even after lockdown ends.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in