By Amanda Harris
These are deeply unsettling times for many, none more so than the thousands of students who attend universities and higher education establishments across Wales.
Not only have students been faced with huge disruption to their courses and exams, with universities closing and learning going online, but many are experiencing serious anxieties and concerns over their housing situation, especially since the Welsh Government Stay at Home guidance has been in place.
At Shelter Cymru we’ve seen a huge increase in demand on our advice services from students. In fact the number of students accessing our telephone advice service has increased nearly fourfold compared with this time last year.
Queries range from legal liability to pay rent when absent from their student accommodation (many students having returned home over the Easter holidays and not returned due to the lockdown), to whether they should be allowing their private landlords in to their property to carry out urgent repairs whilst they are having to self-isolate.
Many students who were relying on zero-hour contracts to help fund their studies and pay their rent are now finding themselves in financial hardship, and unable to fall back on support from families who themselves are struggling to make ends meet. Rent arrears, spiralling debt and the threat of eviction are suddenly very real concerns.
So what is being done to help protect students and alleviate some of these worries?
Temporary emergency measures have been introduced to protect the security of many private tenants throughout the UK during the pandemic – tenants are currently entitled to three months’ notice before eviction (rather than two) and court proceedings for eviction have been postponed until the end of June.
The Welsh Government has issued comprehensive support for tenants setting out the various financial and housing support available for tenants in the private sector in Wales, together with guidance for landlord and agents on how to best manage their tenancies during the pandemic.
Universities are being encouraged by Welsh Government ministers to support their students by helping them access university hardship funds and allowing them to release themselves from tenancies of university owned accommodation which they are not currently occupying.
Financial help through benefits such as universal credit and discretionary housing payments are not always available to students but those in financial difficulty are advised to check Entitledto to see what they can claim and, in Wales, to consider applying to the Discretionary Assistance Fund for an emergency payment to cover essential costs. Help from foodbanks and with paying council tax is also available.
The fact remains however that many students in Wales are at the mercy of their private landlords and, although they are advised to request rent reductions if they are struggling to pay, or to try and negotiate a surrender of their tenancies, unless there is a break clause in their tenancy agreement a private landlord may well be within their rights to refuse.
The inevitable outcome is increasing debt and arrears and, once the restrictions on eviction are lifted, the very real possibility of court proceedings and potentially homelessness.
We have worked hard to adapt our services so as to ensure that expert housing advice remains available to all who need it – whether that be online, by webchat or by phone. We have produced dedicated Covid19 related advice for young people and are constantly monitoring new developments to help frame our campaigning and policy work.
The realisation is however that we are currently at the tip of the iceberg of problems and, as the lockdown eases and the emergency measures and financial support that has been available gradually slip away, the problems and uncertainties students currently face will stay around for a very long time to come.
Amanda Harris is Advice Online Manager at Shelter Cymru