Illustration by Jinny Lee
During the 2018-19 academic year, there were 5348 undergraduate students at LSE, out of which 1753 were first years. Only first year undergraduate students are guaranteed accommodation at LSE Halls of Residence, with over 4000 places offered across 18 locations. While the number of spaces seems large enough to house the majority of undergraduates, 1,777 spaces across 5 halls (Butler’s Wharf, Sidney Webb, Lilian Knowles, High Holborn, and Grosvenor) are reserved for postgraduates. For all other LSE halls, second and third years are only given offers from the end of August, if there are vacancies available after priority has been given to new students.
Over two-thirds of undergraduates students in the 2018-19 academic year found alternative accommodation to these halls, whether from private student accommodation managed by providers such as Unite Students and iQ Student Accommodation to renting from private landlords.
As such, finding housing is a significant concern for most undergraduates heading into their second year at LSE, in a city undergoing crises in housing and soaring rents, with the highest rent to income ratio of any region in the UK. According to the National Student Accommodation Survey 2019, about 54% of students rent from estate agents or private landlords. The average student rent is reportedly £125 per week nationwide, but jumps to £161 per week in London. LSE students who seek private student accommodation will also find that rental costs in central London are likely far greater than in outer zones, which are further from LSE and may entail significant transportation costs. While facilities in private student halls, like 24-hour staff and CCTV security, can be attractive, the closest iQ student accommodation to LSE is its Paris Gardens branch, and its rent per week is £309 for a 51-week contract or £349 per week for a 43-week contract. Notably, iQ student accommodation is the largest private student accommodation provider – students seeking lower prices must do further research into available options.
For students renting for the first time from private landlords or via estate agents, rental prices can be off putting and the obscure private-rental industry practices are often mind boggling. Nearly 1 in 5 students start looking for the following year’s accommodation in November, and the stresses of searching for suitable housing over many months may mean students neglect to research tenancy law and equip themselves with the knowledge of their rights throughout the process.
Prior to June of this year, once students found a private flat or house they wanted to rent, many of them faced their first big hurdle: a list of deposits, uncapped agency fees, and other miscellaneous charges that needed to be paid to secure their housing. The average student would cash out £311 in deposits and £119 in admin charges. However, June 2019 saw the Tenant Fees Act come into force, meaning that tenancy deposits must be refundable and capped at five weeks’ rent for properties where annual rent is £50,000 or less (or six weeks’ rent when annual rent is greater than £50,000). Holding deposits are now also capped at no more than one week’s rent. Furthermore, landlords and agents are banned from charging unnecessary “agent/miscellaneous fees”. Now they can only charge reasonably-incurred costs such as from lost keys or security devices, and must provide evidence of such before any charge. This is part of a broader policy shift to balance power dynamics in the private rental market, which have always been heavily skewed towards landlords, into one that is fairer, better quality, and more affordable.
Students who entered contracts before 1 June 2019 need not despair completely. Even if it is currently stipulated in your contract that it is your responsibility to pay for charges such as inventory or cleaning fees at the end of your tenancy, these fees can only be charged until 31 March 2020. From 1 June 2020, any such stipulations for unnecessary fees will no longer be binding on tenants. Importantly, though a landlord can request the property be cleaned to a professional standard, they cannot request a specific company and cannot deduct from a holding deposit if the condition of the property is due to fair wear and tear. Any costs must be justified by evidence from an independently-produced inventory, receipts, or invoices.
This act also empowers tenants to recover any unlawfully charged fees via the First-tier Tribunal from landlords within seven to fourteen days, or a relevant redress scheme when a problem involves an estate agent. A landlord cannot recover possession of their property under the Section 21 eviction procedure until all unlawfully charges fees or unlawfully kept holding deposit are repaid.
Besides ensuring you are being charged fairly during the rental process, another concern is dealing with property issues during a tenancy. The charity Shelter has calculated that about 10% of renters had their health negatively impacted because their landlords did not address poor conditions and repairs on their property last year. When faced with housing problems, only 2 percent of students seek legal advice, which means they may not be aware of what they are legally entitled to as tenants. Problems a student can encounter while renting include broken mechanical, security, or electrical items that have been left in a poor condition by previous tenants or landlords. Older properties may have electrical wiring or fixings that do not conform to modern safety regulations, such as exposed, fraying wires, and wooden, as opposed to metal, electricity boxes.
Even after making a complaint to your estate agent and landlord, many students complain of long wait times for their problems to be addressed. In fact, 45% of students don’t have their complaints addressed within a week, and 10% wait for a month or longer to get any resolution.
While it may not seem like much, telling your landlord or estate agent explicitly that you know of appropriate regulation and legislation may make them less inclined to ignore your complaints, and many tenants-rights activists consider this step to be the single most effective technique available to tenants. It is also useful to read through your contract and quote the relevant duties of your landlord, which should at least include compliance with the law. It is worth mentioning that private tenants can apply for a refund for up to 12 months’ rent if their landlord does not handle health and safety hazards in the property. For example, in 1994, the Electrical Equipment (Safety) regulations act came into force, making landlords wholly responsible for repairing and maintaining the electrical supply. The government has also legislated new, mandatory 5 yearly electrical installation safety inspections. A 2005 amendment to building regulations requires only fully-qualified electricians to work on property.
Moreover, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 came into force in March 2019, requiring property be fit for human habitation at the beginning and throughout the lease. Significantly, this allows tenants recourse to take legal action, while previously, their main method of redress was through their council’s environmental health teams, which often struggled to meet rising demand.
With students understandably concerned about what may be their first time renting a flat amidst soaring rent and stories of poorly-conditioned flats, it is important for them to know that the law is changing in a way that balances the housing market. Students may also consider joining the London Renters Union. Even if your landlord is a city, country, or a continent away, they are still obligated under the 1985 Landlord and Tenant Law to provide an address or an agent for you to communicate with them; your landlord cannot avoid issues with the property forever. It is the right of all students to live in a safe and dignified manner.
The LSESU Advice Team gave advice to the Beaver: “The first thing thing to advise would be that the student 100% needs to keep paying rent. Threatening to withhold rent is not an option in this situation and can lead to eviction. The student should firstly notify the landlord by email, then by letter of the need for a repair. All correspondence should be dated and done in writing (as opposed to over the phone). The landlord has a duty to make repairs in a ‘timely manner’.”
The nature of the issue will also affect the speed of repairs: a broken boiler will be fixed quicker than a leaky tap. There is a significant distinction between a landlord being slow to make repairs and actively refusing to do so.
The SU Advice Team also said: “If the student still has no luck with the landlord, they can make a formal complaint. This is basically a letter to the landlord detailing the complaint, including as much information as possible (photos, emails, screenshots, dates etc). Often, just mentioning that they intend to make a complaint will make the landlord act faster. You cannot legally be evicted for making a complaint – this is what is known as a retaliatory eviction. If their landlord attempts to do so, the tenants should contact their local Citizens Advice Bureau ASAP.”
If the landlord does not respond, tenants can submit a complaint to their local council. If there is a concern that affects the tenants’ immediate health and safety, like a gas leak, rodent infestation, or large mould patches, tenants can contact the Environmental Department of their council and report their landlord. LSE students are welcome to discuss any housing problems with the SU Advice Service, or check their rights at the Shelter website (https://england.shelter.org.uk/get_help).