Information to Unipol Tenants - Covid19

 

Last updated on previously on 9th February 2021 

This item lets you know how Unipol intends to proceed throughout the remainder of the year in respect of your rent and tenancy and what we know about students returning to their place of study. Unipol wrote to all of its tenants on 22nd January 2021 outlining its position on rent payments and refunds. The information below is taken from those letters and additional information has also been added that was not available on 22nd January 2021.

 The dates when a return to campus may take place are still uncertain but the Government have indicated that the timetable set for schools is likely to also be applied to universities, which is that the roadmap will be available after 22nd February and that no change in advice on returning will take place until after 8th March.

 On 4th February the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, gave an interview to The Tab newspaper (https://thetab.com/uk/2021/02/04/exclusive-government-aims-to-allow-students-back-to-uni-on-8th-march-193938) and said: 

“Our number one priority will be getting students back as quickly as possible. It is the same roadmap as the one that is being laid out for schools. So, basically, on the week commencing 15th February, the government will review the situation.

 They will be looking at data including death rates, the virus rate, the vaccination programme and the pressure on the NHS. Then the decision will be announced on the 22nd February.

 From the 8th March, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students.”

 The Minister went on to clarify that whilst universities may have independently decided to postpone all face-to-face tuition for the rest of the term, for clarity’s sake the Government “will be giving them the option to alter those plans or for those who haven’t announced that to bring students back.”

 Unipol’s Actions

It is important to stress that Unipol is a not-for-profit housing charity. Unipol’s “business model” is that rents are effectively set to cover the annual cost of a house/flat together with a small surplus that goes towards funding Unipol’s family accommodation, advice and accreditation functions. There is no surplus from which to make rent refunds and making any refunds simply accumulates debt for the charity that will have to be repaid by future students through their rents. Nor is Unipol an educational institution, so our position is very different from that of a University. 

On 21st January 2021 Unipol’s Board, decided to increase Unipol’s debt level to its maximum but they also decided, within the very tight financial limits they have to operate within, to prioritise refunds, to those areas of the portfolio with the lowest occupancy levels where tenants have not previously had a rent refund and to individuals with special cases.

Unipol did reduce its rents by 50% for those in smaller houses and city centre flats who paid rent over July and August earlier this year. As was explained at the time, this was because in June 2020 it was not clear whether the start of the academic year would be disrupted and, had universities not opened, then the concessionary rent level reflected an unintended risk taken by those tenants who signed up well before the initial coronavirus pandemic existed. In the event, the return to University was relatively unaffected although (demonstrating the unpredictability of the pandemic) the disruption is now affecting the Spring term return, but most of Unipol’s tenants did receive a rent reduction earlier in the year.

Unipol also said it was willing to take an increasingly flexible position if a student believed that they had a special case and wished to leave their accommodation and study from home for the remainder of this year. Unipol had, in September, previously released around 80 tenants and the number of tenants being released since 5th January 2021 has now cost the charity a further £120,000. This is targeted help that is based on individual circumstances of each student, many of whom have had life-changing experiences related to the pandemic. The additional offer of being released because of special circumstances was time-limited and ended on 22nd January 2021.

 There are also problems with the Government advice to students who are being advised not to return to campus and stay where they are. Many have interpreted this as saying it would be illegal to return to your accommodation but this is not the case. Throughout this lockdown, it remains legal for the public to be able to move house and reconstitute households to keep the ‘housing market’ open. There are no legal restrictions on tenants returning to their homes and taking up their tenancies and they are allowed to do that at any time.

 Many students have continued to return to their accommodation since early January and in larger buildings around 50% of students are now living there and in our smaller houses and flats we now have an estimated 58% of occupancy (which continues to rise week on week). Almost all of our houses are flats are occupied and our portfolio is fully up and running.

 Government Support

As in the previous academic year it appears to be reasonable when students are being told by the Government not return to their term-time accommodation until at least mid-March that they are having to pay significant sums in rent for properties the Government is effectively advising them (through their educational provider) not to use on public health grounds. If it is for public health reasons then it might be expected that the state should step in and provide proper support and Unipol have been active, along with many others in the sector, in lobbying the Government to offer a proper support package for students who find themselves in financial difficulty but Unipol, as a relatively small charity, cannot hope to step in and take on the burden of this level of support itself.

 On 2nd February 2021 the Government announced: 

  • new financial support for students
  • a total of £70 million (£50m more than announced in December 2020) in financial year to help with additional costs like alternative accommodation.

 The new funding is so that universities will be able to help students impacted by the pandemic “for example those facing additional costs for alternative accommodation, loss of employment, or extra costs to access their teaching online. Universities will distribute the funding and will be able to prioritise the funding to those most in need of help.”

 Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:  

“The additional £50 million that we are announcing… will mean we have distributed £70m for hardship in this financial year alone - on top of the £256m of government-funded student premium which universities can use for student support this academic year. 

This additional support will provide real, tangible help for those students struggling financially as a result of the pandemic.

 We will continue to prioritise a full return to education as soon possible, in line with public health advice. I am also working with universities and professional bodies to ensure students can graduate as planned. 

The Government also welcomes the decision from many universities and accommodation providers to offer rent rebates for students who need stay away from their term-time address, and encourages other to join them and offer students partial refunds. It asks all providers of student accommodation including universities, to make sure their rental policies have students’ best interests at heart and are communicated clearly. 

Universities will be able to help students, including international students, impacted by the pandemic, for example those facing additional costs arising from having to maintain accommodation in more than one location, or an inability to maintain employment, such as a job based close to their term-time accommodation for which they cannot access the furlough scheme, or to support students to access teaching remotely. 

Students facing financial hardship are encouraged to contact their University or higher education provider if they find themselves facing financial difficulties related to Covid-19.”

 Unipol continues, along with others, including NUS, to press for higher levels of financial support to those in difficulties and also supports the Government initiative that this targeted help is best undertaken through individual educational institutions. 

The Office for Students has now announced the individual additional hardship allocations from the December £20m initiative and (for relevant institutions) they are:

 University of Leeds                   £109,534

Leeds Arts University                  £26,527

Leeds Beckett University            £298,532

Leeds Conservatoire                    £23,150

Leeds Trinity University                £80,651

Nottingham Trent University       £403,893

University of Nottingham            £108,987

 The allocation of the additional £50m is likely to be decided soon. 

If tenants are in financial difficulty, your University may have special Covid hardship funding available that covers rent. Further information on this is available online:

 Leeds Beckett University https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/covid-19/students/financial-support/

Leeds Conservatoire https://www.leedsconservatoire.ac.uk/student-life/student-support/fees-and-funding/

University of Leeds https://coronavirus.leeds.ac.uk/student-advice/student-faqs/ & https://www.luu.org.uk/news/2020/06/02/luu-coronavirus-hardship-fund-how-were-helping-students/ 

Nottingham Trent University https://www.ntu.ac.uk/studenthub/money-fees-and-funding/extra-money-for-those-who-need-it

University of Nottingham https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/studentservices/support/financialsupport/support-funds/index.aspx

Unipol Decisions on Rents

Unipol’s trustees have taken the following decisions:

 a) As Unipol refunded 50% of rent to all shared house occupants, together with Alexander Court and New York Buildings, for July and August at a cost of over £250K, that no further reductions should be offered to these tenants for the remainder of the academic year and that refunds should be targeted on those who have not yet had any refund and on those who have raised issues where they wish to leave their contracts because of special circumstances.

 b) what rent refunds can be afforded should be targeted on those who have not yet had any refund this year. Mill Street (Leeds) and Sandhills (Nottingham) have therefore been prioritised for what rent refunds are financially possible for the charity.

 A fixed monetary sum pf £420 will be deducted from the next rent payment due on 27th April 2021 on all tenancies running on February 1st 2021. This refund will be given to all tenants whether they are living in the property or not. The refund is conditional upon tenants paying their remaining rent. No further refunds for the 2020-2021 academic year are possible.

 c) Unipol’s Tenancy Release Group continues to exist to consider other exceptional requests to leave and end tenancies and that will continue to function throughout the year and details can be found at https://www.unipolhousing.org.uk/unipol-tenants/moving-out/wishing-to-leave-the-tenancy-early/special-circumstances/

 Conclusion

Unipol is not able to be more helpful than it is being. Since March 2020 the charity has refunded in excess of £1,200,000 and these latest measures will cost a further £400,000 and that is the extent of the charity’s borrowing ability.

 Martin Blakey, Chief Executive, Unipol Student Homes - 9th February 2021 (updated from previous statement made on 25th January 2021 and 5th January 2021)