Coronavirus: Students told to pay up for empty flats

By Michael Sheils McNamee

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Some students in private rental accommodation have been left paying for properties they are no longer staying in after their classes were cancelled due to coronavirus.

Ulster University and Queen’s University have said students can terminate rental agreements at halls run by them.

But some private landlords are still charging students.

Students said they were frustrated by the situation.

‘Paying until August’

Megan Edwards, a human rights law masters student at Queen’s, told BBC News NI she had a contract until August with a rent of £260 a month.

"It is just such a frustrating situation to be going through," she said.

Ms Edwards said as a postgraduate student she was not entitled to any financial assistance in the form of a student loan.

“Queen’s is a university, but it is also a massive business and if it is able to take the hit, why can’t letting agents that have smaller numbers of students as part of their business do so?" she said.

Prior to the shutdown of university campuses, Ms Edwards worked part-time for Queen's in its widening participation programme and used this income to cover her rent.

image copyrightMegan Edwards
image captionMegan Edwards cannot live in her Belfast house

Ms Edwards said as well as the university being shut down, she could not live in the Belfast property as members of her immediate family were vulnerable to the virus and one of her flatmates is a health service worker.

She said after emailing her letting agency last Friday, she received a response informing her rent is still due.

Having moved back to her family home in Strabane, County Tyrone, Ms Edwards said finding work locally to keep up her payments would be extremely difficult in the current climate.


James McCarthy called for landlords to consider the damage to mental health that demands for rent could have.

The journalism masters student, who studies at Ulster University in Coleraine, received a letter from his rental company saying further action could be taken if he does not keep up payments.

“Before coronavirus broke out, we were told about a mental health crisis, how it’s such a serious issue in universities,” he said.

"Now students are receiving these emails and it could potentially be seriously damaging.”

image copyrightJames McCarthy
image captionJames McCarthy rents a flat in Portstewart

The 22-year-old, who had been living in a shared flat in Portstewart, has since moved back in with his family in Belfast and taken on additional shifts in his supermarket job, something he said he is “lucky” to be able to do.

He pays £240 a month in rent and is still liable for rent until May, bringing the amount owed to £480.

“[Property companies] need to be more compassionate with the people they are letting their houses to,” he said.

Call for help

The Landlords' Association of Northern Ireland (LANI) said landlords would “seek to help their tenants where it is at all possible”.

It said, in a statement, that the situation “remains confusing for landlords” and put forward suggestions for action by the government.

It recommended housing benefits being paid to students, mortgage deferrals being available on all properties, student loans being brought forward to 20 April and university hardship funds increased.

It also recommended temporary rate relief for landlords and a suspension of housing regulations, as fewer contractors are currently working.

Private halls of residence

On Wednesday, private halls provider Student Roost, which has a number of locations across Belfast, said it would be giving students the option to cancel their accommodation from 1 May.

A spokeswoman for the halls said “these are incredibly challenging times” and it was “doing everything we can to support our residents”.

“We are continuing to support all our residents, including those who do not wish to, or cannot, move out of their student accommodation,” she said.

Students in the halls pay in instalments, with the next payment due on 1 May.

To be able to access the early termination, students must contact the university by 13 April.

Aine Ramsey, a politics and criminology BSc student from Londonderry, studying at Ulster University in Jordanstown, is a resident with Student Roost.

image copyrightAine Ramsey
image captionAine Ramsey lives in Student Roost halls

She said she welcomed the announcement and it would give students “a little bit of ease now instead of worrying about paying rent, with many students losing their jobs and their income due to the virus”.

“However, we are still expected to pay the month of April, we will continue to lobby Student Roost to try get them to terminate from April onwards,” she said.