‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’: Student Rent Strikes Spread Across Britain

Alex Day looks into student rent striking during the covid-19 crisis.

By Alex Day

As the coronavirus pandemic began to shut down universities, many students made the decision to return home rather than remaining in student accommodation. But with the nationwide lockdown forcing the close of all non-essential businesses, many students now find themselves without a job or significantly underpaid through contractual caveats.

Although student loan payments are promised to arrive in full and on time, the students who rely on employment to make ends meet are being paid furlough for their contracted hours – resulting in a significantly reduced income.

A furloughed worker would receive 80% of their salary, up to £2500 a month. However, many students who are furloughed workers, were on zero-hours or other ‘casual’ contracts before the pandemic. In reality, they are not receiving 80% of what they would usually earn, because they do not have the luxury of being on a fixed salary. Many employers are cutting costs by paying their furloughed staff 80% of ‘base hours’, meaning they will be paid as little as 30% of their usual earnings. Situations like this mean that many students simply cannot afford to pay rent.

Across the country, students are organizing rent strikes to demand the reduction or altogether cancellation of rent payments throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Strikes organized in university halls at SOAS, Surrey, Plymouth, Strathclyde and London universities involved over 1000 student tenants collectively.

The movement is being supported by the online campaign for rent strikes (https://www.rent-strike.org/universities), calling for solidarity and action under the slogan ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’.

The site has also produced a how-to handbook for rent strikes (https://www.rent-strike.org/covid19), setting out strikers’ demands clearly and concisely, which will undoubtedly ignite further protests and serve to unify the movement.

In Bristol, 130 students organized a rent strike to demand the cancellation of their final rent payments due to Covid-19. Lancaster University strikers recruited 200 people to join the cause within their first twenty-four hours of organizing protest. The movement is spreading, gaining traction and applying increasing pressure on letting agents and university accommodation services alike.

Although some concessions have been made, many private letting agencies remain steadfast in their demands for monthly rent payments – which seems extremely unreasonable, given many of these students face financial ruin if they do pay, for reasons completely outside of their control.

South of the border, students are not protected by Scottish tenancy laws, which allow tenants to provide 28 days’ notice before moving out – many find themselves locked into long-term tenancy contracts, meaning they are forced to pay rent that they cannot afford for properties that they are not living in.

As the Chancellor Rishi Sunak wisely said: ‘Now more than at any time in our history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion’. It appears landlords remain, as ever, some of the least compassionate members of our society.

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Alex Day looks into student rent striking during the covid-19 crisis.