By Daniella Theis and Orla McCarthy
Student tenants are taking action against their student accommodation providers over reported poor living conditions and on-going disputes over missing refunds.
Unsanitary living conditions, ‘yellow’ water, and Covid fears:
Fresh Student Living’s Collegelands student accommodation, also nicknamed “Covid-lands” by some residents, is one of the buildings central to many Strathclyde student’s complaints. Students who have been living in the building since August have cited several concerns including unsanitary living conditions, poor WIFI, unclean apartments, intermittent power, and a variety of security issues.
Issues came to a head in October when a flood caused residents to endure water shortages for several days. Residents reported that they had to rely on bottled water from the local shops as the Fresh Student Living team had run out of spare bottled water. Residents argue that the damage caused by the water shortage was particularly detrimental during a pandemic as they were unable to wash their hands or clean surfaces of the building properly and that once the water returned it was “cold, yellow, and brown.”
Students self-isolating felt particularly disadvantaged as they were not informed of the water issues and were unable to leave their flats to buy bottled water. One resident said: “Collegelands have done absolutely nothing to help students staying there. There are students isolating who they are ignoring and there have been many problems throughout the building which has put all students at risk”
A petition asking Fresh Student Living to take responsibility for the standard of living and provide compensation to those impacted has been created by students and has now amassed over 150 signatures. Fresh Student Living is said to have been in touch with the creator of the petition, Strathclyde student Kathryn Bradbeer, to discuss the issues. Commenting on the situation, a representative of Fresh Student Living stated that the accommodation provider was “aware of the issues that took place earlier in the year” and that an open forum inviting all of Collegeland’s staff and building residents was previously organised so that any issues could be “aired and resolved.”
The representative added: “We had a number of meetings with Strathclyde University who have expressed that they are happy with our response. We have a new Residents’ Team in place who are committed to providing high levels of service to our residents.”
The long wait for refunds:
It is not only students staying in Fresh Student Living’s accommodation that are facing difficulties. Several residents of Unite Student Living’s accommodation have attempted to leave the accommodation under the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 which allows students to exit their lease in a student accommodation if their ability to stay and study is impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, some students are undergoing great difficulty exiting their lease or obtaining refunds.
Ali Gibson, a Business Administration student at Strathclyde, previously lived in Unite Student Living’s Merchant City House accommodation. While she was able to cancel her contract with Unite Student Living back in March last year, she is still waiting on a refund of £200 she overpaid.
“They let me out of my contract early due to Covid-19. However, I well overpaid on rent for the time I was actually there,” Gibson explained: “This was due to the payment schedule. With me paying monthly, my contract stated £118 a week but with how the payments were scheduled I ended up paying around £126 a week. I already asked Unite Student Living for a refund of the overpayment several times but was told I was only entitled to a refund up to 80% of total tenancy, so I wasn’t eligible.”
Gibson describes that she knows of other students in a similar situation as her that are currently waiting for refunds of up to £800. She adds: “I am glad they allowed us out of our contracts early, but I feel as though they already charge students enough rent as it is without unfairly overcharging during a pandemic when times are uncertain.”
Denied the right to give notice:
Other students are struggling to get out of their contracts in the first place, despite current government guidance urging students not to return to their university accommodation. It is said that Unite Student Living has asked student tenants to provide evidence that they experienced financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 or that their course has no intention of holding in-person teaching for the remainder of the year. Strathclyde University has so far resisted calls to commit to delivering the second semester online and many students have struggled to obtain the evidence required to end their accommodation contract.
Strathclyde Student Union’s Vice President of Welfare, Benn Rapson, penned an open letter to both, Unite Student and Fresh Student Living, regarding the treatment of residents. In his letter to Unite Student Living’s Management team, Rapson urged the accommodation provider to “reconsider their position” and to “allow students to leave their accommodation without prejudice.”
He added: “The very purpose of the bill [Coronavirus (Scotland) (No. 2) Act] was to afford students in purpose-built accommodation similar rights as those in Private Residential Tenancies and allow them to leave their accommodation with 28 days notice should they need to in order to prevent financial hardship, mental distress, and harm. The bill does not detail what counts as reasons related to coronavirus, nor does it state that evidence is required by the student for them to be allowed to give notice to end their tenancy.
“Strathclyde Student’s Union stands with any student who is denied their right to give notice and will support and advise them of their legal right to do so and to claim back any advanced rent payment.”
Rapson has since also established the Strathclyde Housing Action Group and the Greater Glasgow Student Tenants Union [GGSTU] to support students in taking action for fairer treatment from their accommodation providers.
“The GGSTU is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for students from every institution in Glasgow to work together as one,” Rapson explained: “By coming together, we can shift the balance of power away from our institutions, private landlords, and private student accommodation providers – and change the lives of student tenants for the better.
“I’d encourage all students to get involved with the GGSTU. It’s a really exciting opportunity to be bold and make change happen.”
Any students seeking assistance with obtaining refunds, or any other issues they have with their student accommodation providers are encouraged to get in touch with Strath Union’s Advice Hub for assistance: https://www.strathunion.com/advice/arrangeappointment/
Any students wishing to join or find more information about the GGSTU are encouraged to visit the official Facebook page or contact VP Welfare Benn Rapson directly on Facebook or via firstname.lastname@example.org. The GGSTU will be holding a general meeting on January 14th, 2021. More information can be found here.