The main query we've had from students and their families is whether they can abandon tenancies which they no longer need. But, students also need advice on benefits and on dealing with bad housing during a national lockdown. If you need advice to help you deal with a specific problem, please contact our helpline.
Leaving purpose-built student accommodation
Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster have both stated that they will release students in Halls of Residence from their residency contracts. Students who wish to remain in Halls can continue to do so and should talk to their accommodation officer or students union representatives if they are worried about safety issues while in Halls.
If your accommodation is provided by a private company, like Roost or Fresh Student Living, you will need to check with that provider to see if they will allow you to cancel your contract early.
Leaving a house or flat let under a private tenancy
A tenancy agreement to rent a property for a fixed period of time is a binding legal contract. Some people feel that they can no longer stay in the property they've rented, because courses are now being delivered online or the tenant felt safer returning to a family home. However, the fact that you've decided to stop living in your rented home because you no longer need to, or even because you can't, doesn't give you a right to stop paying the rent.
If you are not able to pay the rent, there is a risk that your landlord will eventually take you or your guarantor to court to claim the money that is owed under the terms of the contract. Although this issue has been raised numerous times by politicians, student representatives and voluntary organisations, there hasn't been any change to the law which would prevent a landlord from doing this.
The best way to try to resolve this situation is to negotiate with the landlord. The following information explains some of the options you can consider when negotiating.
Landlord payment holidays
Landlords can apply for a payment holiday from their mortgage lender. But, the mortgage lender doesn't have to agree to this, so it is not an absolute certainty that the landlord's payments will stop.
If the mortgage lender agrees to pause payments, the landlord will have to cover the cost of these missed payments later on. The mortgage lender could increase the landlord's monthly mortgage payments or extend the term of the mortgage. Some landlords will be happy to help tenants out and to cover the increased costs themselves or through a rent increase later on. But, it's important to know that a payment holiday doesn't forgive the landlord's responsibility to pay the mortgage - it simly pushes it down the line by a few months.
If the landlord does get a mortgage holiday, there is no legal requirement for them to pass this on to a tenant. Of course, landlords should do this but there isn't much you can do if they choose not to.
Offering a final settlement
Find out what, if any, help you can get to pay your rent. You may be able to offer this as a final settlement of your contract. If your landlord does agree to release you from the contract on the condition that you pay some sort of lump sum, make sure you have this agreement in writing so the landlord can't contest it later.
Most universities and colleges have their own student welfare and student hardship funds. You can apply to this for help to pay rent if you are struggling to do so as a result of the current crisis. Your student welfare advisers or students union representatives can give you advice on how to apply to the fund. Government departments in Northern Ireland are in discussions about increasing the amount of money that is available to student hardship funds, so it's worth keeping an eye on your student union website or social media in case there is an annoucement about new funding.
There is a discretionary support fund for Northern Ireland. Students can't normally access this fund. However, the Minister for Communities is treating the current crisis as an emergency or disaster situation, which means that students can apply for assistance from this fund as long as their income is low.
You can apply online or by calling 0800 587 2759
Government rescue packages
Your employer may be able to keep paying you if you have no work at the moment, but were working and on the PAYE payroll in March. Talk to your employer to see if you can be placed on furlough. The furlough scheme is open to agency workers and to people on zero hours contracts, but you need to have been on a PAYE payroll on the 19 March to be eligible.
Access to benefits
Full-time students can only access benefits in very limited circumstances. You may be able to get help to pay your rent, and with other living costs, by applying for Universal Credit. Universal Credit will only help with rent if you are still living in the property you are renting. You may be able to get help if you
- are under 21, you have no parental support and you are not doing an advanced course of education
- are receiving certain disability benefits
- are responsible for a child
- are living with a partner who can claim Universal Credit
- have reached state pension credit age and are living with a partner who has not reached that age.
It may be possible to find short-term employment to help with your ongoing rent. Lots of businesses have stopped, but there is still a real need for labour in the agri-food sector. Check JobCentre online for updates.
Other advice on renting problems during lockdown
Your landlord is still required to deal with repairs during the lockdown, but may only be able to deal with emergencies. The landlord shouldn't be entering your property or letting anyone else into the property unless its an emergency situation and all viewings and inspections should be postponed until after the lockdown, as these aren't counted as essential journeys and are probably restricted by the new public health laws.
A mediator may be able to help you and your landlord come to an agreement if you can't figure out a solution to an issue because of the lockdown. Housing Rights provides a free mediation service and private tenants can use this as long as their landlord is registered.
Talking to someone about your problems usually helps. If you want to talk about any of these issues or have a totally different housing problem, please contact our helpline.