Life

Life for Rent: Can I Leave My Student Housing and Go Home?

Plus: What to do when your lettings agent serves you with an aggressive Section 21 notice.
October 9, 2020, 8:30am
2020-10-08
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

I’ve just started my second year at uni but obviously, corona. I’m worried there will be another big lockdown – I’m not sure if I’m going to want to stay put in my privately rented house or go home to my parents, but I realise I’m tied into a contract and have to pay rent. Can you read me my rights please?

I feel you. This isn’t how your second year was supposed to be. You should be emailing me to ask what to do about the fact that you can’t pay your rent because you’ve been injecting Domino’s into your veins but, here we are: smack bang in the middle of nobody quite knows where. 

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Instead of choosing between beans and tinned tuna, you’re wondering whether to leave your friends and go home to your family. It is completely understandable that you want to go home. After all, social distancing, curfews and a pandemic do not a thrilling university experience make. More than that, I imagine the thought of not being allowed to go home must be on your mind every minute of every single day. I know it would be on mine.  

Here’s some solid guidance as to where you stand if you decide to get out of there. Warning: it might not be what you want to hear. 

At the start of lockdown, the National Union of Students called for students to be let out of rental contracts and for landlords to be more flexible. Those please seem largely to have gone unheard. 

Amy Hughes, a senior housing expert at Citizens Advice, says: “Unfortunately, there’s not much good news for students who decide to change households for the medium to long-term by returning to their family home. It’s likely that in many cases they will be tied into their accommodation agreements and not entitled to any refund.”

This is because, you are generally liable for any rent due until the end of your fixed term rental agreement. Some tenancy agreements contain a break clause, so i’s worth checking to see if yours does. But, Amy notes, “this would be unusual in a student tenancy agreement where the letting is intended to be for an academic year, and the landlord is only likely to be able to re-let it for the following academic year”.

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She adds: “If you share accommodation with other people, then unless you each have a separate agreement, you are likely to be jointly and separately liable for rent. This means that the landlord can pursue any of the tenants – or their guarantor – for any rent due under the joint agreement, regardless of which tenant failed to pay their share.” If you go and others stay, you could be leaving them in the lurch. 

The first thing to do is reach out to your landlord or letting agent and try to negotiate, though Amy warns that “if there is no obligation for them to release you from the contract, they may well be unwilling to do so”. 

There are exceptions: “Where the landlord is the university, they may be more sympathetic to a short-term reduction in rent, or ending a contract early, if there is no longer any reason for you to remain in halls.” A private landlord may well be less accommodating. 

Not the news you were hoping for, I am sure. I hope you can find a solution that works for you. The only certainty, I guess, is that next week there will almost definitely be something else to worry about. 

Our assured shorthold tenancy (AST) runs to the beginning of January, and we are planning to renew it. However, we have received a Section 21 notice from the letting agent that states that we need to leave the property by the end of January if we don't want to renew.

It feels incredibly heavy-handed to me – we are good tenants and have never been late on rent. Does having a Section 21 notice affect me in any way? It seems so official. My understanding is that the notice will be cancelled if we choose to renew, but I just don't get the need to institute this as a measure in the first place. Is this a common practice?

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No, it isn’t. Heavy-handed is exactly the word for this. It’s yet more evidence that organisations like Shelter and Generation Rent are completely right to urge the government to fast-track plans to abolish Section 21 evictions as the coronavirus crisis continues.  

A quick recap: Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act means that landlords can threaten tenants with eviction without having to give them a reason. It is one of the legal ways a landlord can legitimately end an AST. Such evictions are also known as “no fault evictions”. Theresa May’s government pledged to get rid of Section 21 because it causes homelessness and is being misused. We’re still waiting over a year later. 

Shelter housing advisor Vanessa Vaughan has some reassurance for you. “Because this is a ‘no fault’ eviction notice, it won’t count against you if you are evicted this way.” Your credit record won’t be affected and no judgements will be logged against you because of this. 

The government may not have done much to get the Section 21 ban over the line, but they have extended notice periods. Vanessa notes that if someone has received a Section 21 on or after August 29th, your landlord has to give you six months notice (it used to be three). From your email, it seems as though you got yours before this change was made. I’m afraid this means that you’d have three months’ notice instead of six. 

What about renewing your contract? “Once your fixed term AST expires, it will roll on a periodic basis, for example month by month or week by week,” Vanessa explains. “This is unless your tenancy agreement states something else will happen. There’s no legal obligation for you to sign a new agreement or for your landlord to offer a new fixed term contract.” 

You’re going to have to talk to your landlord and find out the score. If you want to renew and they’re prepared to go ahead, great. If this is the case, Vanessa points out, you can “carry on with a rolling periodic AST if that’s what you’d prefer” which could be helpful if you don’t want to commit for another whole year. 

There are downsides to this flexibility, Vanessa cautions. “Your landlord would be able to start the ball rolling sooner if he wants to evict you.”

As to why you’ve been issued with a Section 21 instead of engaging in a conversation about renewing your contract – honestly, I don’t know. It could be that your letting agent is using it willy nilly, that they don’t really understand it or that there’s something else going on that you need to talk to your landlord about. Which brings us full circle: it’s time to end Section 21 because all it does is reinforce the “evil landlord versus tenant” narrative and prevent productive conversations which, in these already fraught times, is doing nobody any favours. 

@Victoria_Spratt