A ‘greedy’ landlord threatens bailiffs on student for property left empty due to pandemic

Prime Student Living Coventry and its logo
Steve Topple

A student had to move back to her parents because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. But her “greedy” student accommodation landlord still forced her to pay over £2,000 for a place she wasn’t living in. Her story may sound familiar to thousands of other students. But it sums up the problems with the outsourcing of what was once a public sector operation.

You’d be forgiven for thinking these actions were that of a cash-strapped, small landlord. But the company that owns the property is a subsidiary of a much larger company. Its parent company is Crosslane Property Group UK. Crosslane also owns over a dozen other companies, with a turnover of £25m in 2018. Hardly short of a few quid.

Meet Prime Student Living…

Prime Student Living is a student landlord. It claims:

We’ve been helping students live happily for over 10 years now. Accommodating thousands of students in cities around the UK, we know a thing or two about creating the best student experience.

But one student would disagree with Prime’s assertion that it ‘helps students live happily’. Because it has charged her for rent when she wasn’t able to live in the property due to the pandemic.

…and meet Rebecca

Rebecca is a digital and technology solutions degree student at Coventry University. From the north of Ireland, she was in her first year when the UK locked down. So, she continued her studies online. But amid the difficulties she faced with remote learning, her student accommodation landlord Prime decided to make life that bit harder for her and her parents.

She told The Canary:

My second instalment of rent with Prime was on the 13 January 2020, that was to take me up to 28 April. I went home [to the north of Ireland] on the 21 March and lockdown was put in place on the 22. I contacted Prime as soon as I came home to inform them that I had left and was not going to be returning for the foreseeable future. So, I asked if there was any way due to the global pandemic if I could be released out of my contract; or give me a reduced rent rate, as I knew I wasn’t going to be living there. They completely refused and said that everyone was asking the same question and they couldn’t do anything about it because I had signed a contract, therefore, I was still liable to pay.

Not budging

Prime did not want to budge. It sent Rebecca repeated emails, reminding her that her final rent instalment of £2,141.33 was due. It’s worth noting that her student loan didn’t cover all of her rent. Rebecca’s parents were having to make up the shortfall.

April came, and Rebecca emailed Prime. She told The Canary she ‘begged’ the company to at least reduce her rent by half given the circumstances. But Prime still refused to do anything to help. And then it dug its heels in even more:

Prime offered a payment plan so I would have more time to pay it off. That was all the ‘help’ I received from them. After that I was contacting everyone I could: the students union, law firms in Coventry etc. I genuinely can’t even remember everyone I contacted but I do remember that everyone came back with the same answer: ‘nothing that we can do’.

When it got to May, Prime sent multiple letters to my house demanding the rent payment. Then I got a phone call threatening debt collectors, they said that they might have already been contacted so the sooner you pay it the better (for your guarantor, my parents, basically).

“Stressful”

This was all on top of Rebecca’s university work. She told The Canary:

It was really stressful and much more difficult than I felt it should have been. Prime were just being greedy.

She said her situation seemed unique, as the other private landlords of her university friends let them out of their contracts. So, Rebecca tried another tactic:

As soon as flights [from the north of Ireland] became available, I went over at the start of June to clear out my room. I thought maybe if I cleared it out I would at least get the couple of months rent back. But, surprise surprise, nothing.

My final rent instalment covered 28 April – 28 August. So, I had to pay five months worth of rent that I couldn’t use.

The Canary repeatedly tried to contact the company for comment. We also contacted Crosslane. Neither had responded to our requests at the time of publishing.

“Egregious”

The grassroots community union ACORN Coventry has been supporting Rebecca. It told The Canary:

Prime Student Living’s actions (demanding that a student pay over £2000 for an accommodation that they could not reasonably occupy) are obviously objectionable, even by the low standards of student accommodation providers. Other providers in Coventry at least recognised the need to allow students to end their contracts early when the pandemic started, making Prime Student Living stand out as being particularly egregious.

ACORN are a community and tenants union and we value the power of collective action. This Twitter shaming campaign is only one part of an ongoing effort to get Rebecca her rent back in full. As long as Prime continues to ignore Rebecca we will continue to fight alongside her.

Rebecca has been grateful for `ACORN’s support:

It’s definitely been a difficult situation. But I am glad that I got in touch with Acorn. I feel like they are the only group to really make an effort and help me try and get my money back. I think it has been really helpful even in just raising awareness. It’s allowed students to see the disgusting behaviour of landlords. We can also try to help new students avoid companies such as Prime.

Thousands more students trapped in rent payments?

Sadly, Rebecca is not alone with her story. The Guardian reported in May that “thousands” of students were in similar situations with private landlords. Meanwhile, the government has done little to help. In April, the Department for Education (DfE) said:

The Government urges universities and private hall providers to be fair and clear in their decisions about rent charges for this period. A number of large companies have waived rents for the summer term or released students early from their contracts, including Unite.

Private student accommodation providers who are facing difficulty during this time may be able to access the support packages announced by the Chancellor to protect businesses.

Students who are tenants with individual private landlords can discuss with them the possibility of an early release from their tenancy agreement.

“Not required” to help

Guidance the government issued in August was also opaque. It said that landlords were “not required” to stop charging rent due to the pandemic. It noted that:

Most tenants will be able to pay rent as normal and should continue to do so, as they will remain liable for the rent during this period.

There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach, as each tenant’s circumstance is different, and some will be worse affected in terms of their ability to pay than others. It is important for landlords to be flexible and have a frank and open conversation with their tenants at the earliest opportunity, to allow both parties to agree a sensible way forward.

So Rebecca, and possibly thousands of other students, have been left with bills for accommodation they did not use. Landlords like Prime could argue that it still has mortgages to pay on its properties. Therefore, the money has to come from somewhere. But ultimately, you can draw two conclusions from this situation.

A very corporate capitalist problem

Firstly, we’re back to the problems of the private sector being involved in what was the public sector. Traditionally, universities used to run student ‘halls’. But now, much of the accommodation is in private hands. So, once loans and profit margins are in play, it’s always going to be those at the bottom (students) who suffer in the event of problems.

Rebecca told The Canary:

I’m not sure if anything will come of it. I obviously would be so thrilled if I was refunded the money but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve decided to stay at home this year and just do my course online. This is because I didn’t want to be caught out again with a company like them; having to pay an extortionate amount of money for something I couldn’t access. Plus having one class a week on campus and the rest online isn’t worth paying out over £2000 a term for accommodation.

Secondly, her story ultimately sums up corporate capitalism. On the face of it, the system functions (for some) when all its cogs keep turning: Rebecca pays her rent; landlords pay their mortgages, and the banks get richer. But as soon as something (in this case a pandemic) puts a spanner in the works – the system grinds to a halt and starts collapsing around itself. And it’s people like Rebecca who end up suffering the consequences of a fragile and failing system.

Featured image via Prime Student Living – screengrab

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