Since lockdown was announced in early January, thousands of students have been stuck at home, unable to travel to their accommodation despite having to pay standard rent. Students at Urbanest, however, decided enough was enough.
A petition with over 200 signatures was delivered to one of the largest student accommodation providers in London on Friday 29th January. The petition, signed largely by tenants and guarantors, demanded that Urbanest update their policies to accurately reflect the issues faced by students during lockdown.
Daniel Lawes, the forerunner of the campaign, says “Urbanest’s policies have been grossly inadequate, failing to offer students the ability to terminate their contract or waive their accommodation fees until a date in which they can safely return.”
The petition calls for Urbanest to align their lockdown policies in line with the sector’s standard as seen at the London School of Economics, King’s College London, University College London and University of London, which are providing students with the option to either terminate their contracts or waive their accommodation fees until they are able to return without breaking the law. An option to apply a weekly charge of £25 until the tenant’s return date to the accommodation, to store belongings in rooms, has also been proposed.
Rising stress levels
Urbanest had previously offered a 30% reduction of rent for the lockdown period but it has been identified this was only offered to some students, and is only applied to the final rent payment. As a result, many students feel this offer fails to address the real issue at hand and has caused significant additional stress.
A proportion of students involved in the petition have also been withholding their rent payments. Others, however, did not have this option since their due rent was automatically taken out of their account (an automatic procedure put in place from the start of the contract, unless opted out). One such tenant is Anna Fox, a second year City, University of London student, who is currently living at home with her parents.
“The treatment of students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been inexcusable,” she says. “To be charged for a studio flat and facilities that I currently cannot frequent due to the legally enforced lockdown measures is grossly unjust.”
No government support
Fox also expresses her frustration at the lack of government support, saying, “The government should implement a financial support scheme for students, similar to the furlough scheme, who are unable to make ends meet during this time, and who currently are paying out for accommodation that they are unable to return to.”
Many, like Fox, are disappointed at the lack of acknowledgement from Urbanest, resulting in further lobbying, alongside the petition, through social media and Google reviews, with many students warning prospective tenants against booking with Urbanest unless they change their current policies.
Within a very short time, the campaign has gained significant attention, including from the National Union of Students. The President, Larissa Kennedy, released an official statement about the situation, saying, “As President of the National Union of Students I fully support the aims of this petition and urge Urbanest to listen to the demands outlined in it and do what is right for students and public health.”
What are universities doing?
LSE (London School of Economics), and the Students’ Union had previously requested Urbanest to align their policies with LSE’s policies but nothing except the 30% rent reduction has been offered to tenants so far. Ian Spencer, the head of the LSE Residential Services has assured students that he is aware of the petition and has spoken to Urbanest about the situation. The tenants hope that increased pressure from these various parties will encourage Urbanest to meet the demands laid out in the petition.
In a representative email sent by Daniel Lawes to Urbanest, outlining the petition, he has asserted that if the demands of the petition are not met, the student body at Urbanest will be forced to take matters further.
Urbanest have since responded to the petition, saying that all facilities are still open and running, and that they are giving extra support to tenants through the 30% rent reduction. They did not acknowledge the petition’s requests. The signatories of the petition feel that this response is unsatisfactory, and are taking the campaign further by involving the LSE Students’ Union, creating an Instagram page dedicated to the campaign, and contacting MPs.