Coronavirus: Students fear late scramble for rooms

By Michael Sheils McNamee

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image captionStudents are facing a dilemma

University students returning to study in the autumn are facing uncertainty over their accommodation.

Pressure is on to secure rooms for the new term, even though there is no confirmation that classes will have returned by then.

For many, it means choosing between taking a lease on a room which could potentially lie empty, or having no accommodation come September.

Cora Hughes is going into her second year at Queen's University Belfast.

"We are stuck in the grey area," the 20-year-old law student from Pontypridd in Wales told BBC News NI.

"I know there are a lot of my friends who are paying for empty rooms, or have put down money on tenancies for next year.

image copyrightCora Hughes
image captionCora Hughes had been planning to stay in Northern Ireland during the summer before the coronavirus pandemic

"It could be possible we won't be at the university for two, or three, or four months if the second wave comes. They haven't put an end date on it.

"There is a group of my friends who have put deposits down for a seven bedroom house for next year, but I haven't put anything down because I am just too worried I won't be able to get there," she said.

"I could potentially come back with no accommodation."

'Students are under a lot of pressure'

Speaking to BBC News NI, Robert Murtagh, president of NUS-USI, a body which represents students in Northern Ireland, said "the vast majority of students" are holding off at the moment.

"For the students who are already enrolled, they would normally start looking for houses, and start to sign leases for next year," he said.

"A lot of them have decided not to. Their own housing situation at the moment is so precarious."

Mr Murtagh said there was a growing concern there could be a rush for accommodation once it does become clear when things are going to restart, leaving some with nowhere to stay.

"My fear is that come the end of August, start of September, you are going to have a mad dash for houses - people are going to sign on having not reviewed housing and tenancy agreements."

'It is up in the air'

Grian Ní Dhaimhín, the incoming president of Queen's Student Union, is also a representative for the Student Renters Group, an organisation set up to help students facing rental difficulties.

She said financial difficulties faced by many students were aggravated by the fact securing a property over the summer often required paying two overlapping rents.

Her group has advocated for a rent waiver, and an extension on a moratorium on evictions, which currently stands at three months.

It is also calling for the executive to put additional financial supports in place for students.

Can students view houses?

The current lockdown means landlords cannot show their properties.

Despite this, according to the Landlords' Association of Northern Ireland (LANI), there is no shortage of demand.

The representative group said its members had reported receiving as many as 20 emails a day from students trying to secure accommodation.

A spokesman for LANI said it did not have a policy in place for its members to give special provision if students had their courses delayed, but would be following guidance from the Department for Communities.

LANI said it anticipated students would want to move into their properties in September, even if their courses had not begun.

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image captionThere are concerns there could be a "mad rush" for accommodation at the start of term time

On individuals coming together to live in one household, and how this would impact on social distancing restrictions, LANI said it was monitoring things on a "weekly and monthly basis".

It said it anticipated students living together in a household would count as one family unit.

The organisation said it was hoping lockdown measures could soon be eased to the point where viewings would be allowed, and that it was preparing for that situation.

It said that in this circumstance, a "strict protocol" for landlords would be in place on how to hold "organised and co-ordinated" viewings once things reopen.

This would involve those viewing the properties wearing masks, sanitising their hands before entering properties, and hands being kept in pockets during the viewings.

'Responding to the challenges'

An Ulster University spokesperson said its preparations for the next academic year meant it would have to respond "to the challenges and uncertainty arising from this pandemic".

It said while applications for accommodation were being accepted, the commitment for students is limited to a refundable booking fee.

Queen's University Belfast said it was "developing contingency measures for the start of the next academic year to protect the safety and wellbeing of students".

It said in a statement: "If social distancing is still being applied and these measures are required, those students who have a place in accommodation will be contacted and any implications for their place in accommodation discussed with them."

Nathan Goddard, the CEO of private student halls company Student Roost, which operates a number of buildings in Belfast, said in a situation where the start date of a course is pushed back, students would be able to delay the start time for their accommodation.

"I hope that these measures provide some peace of mind to students and their families during this pandemic," he said.

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