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Bristol students stage rent strike over ‘heartless’ actions of letting agent

By ellie pipe, Wednesday Apr 1, 2020

Students are staging a day of action against a Clifton-based letting agent over what they call a “heartless response” during the coronavirus crisis.

More than 120 people are taking part in the strike after Digs sent an email to tenants demanding final rents are paid “regardless of when loans come in or the current situation with COVID-19”.

The students at the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol say a lot of tenants rely on jobs to pay their rent and many have been affected by the coronavirus lockdown measures that have seen the closure of all non-essential shops, restaurants, pubs and venues – and with this, the loss of income for many.

Digs has admitted the initial email was “insensitive”, claiming it was sent in error and was followed 48 hours later with another offering to speak to individuals struggling to pay their rent. It adds: “unfortunately the legalities are such that the tenancies are still valid and hence the rents do have to be paid”.

Cecilia George says she is having to make up a shortfall of around £1,000 with next to no income. Photo courtesy of Cecilia George

Cecilia George, a second-year student studying French and Russian, relies on being able to work three jobs alongside university in order to cover rent and living costs. Two of her three roles have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“Without my jobs, I’m having to find around £1,000 to meet the shortfall with little to no income and that really worries me, especially when I’m not even going to be living there,” says Cecilia, adding: “Even my maintenance loan is a loan, not income. Eventually I will have to pay that back during times of potential economic weakness.”

The students launched the strike action on Wednesday, April 1- a week after receiving the email from Digs. They say both the letting agent and individual landlords have been threatening punitive late fees with no regard to the current crisis or tenants’ abilities to pay.

Ruth Day says the rent strike is a necessity for many students. Photo courtesy of Ruth Day

Ruth Day says the response from students coming together over this issue has been heartening.

“This strike is a necessity for many students,” explains the third year student, who is studying maths and philosophy.

“We have lost the jobs we need to pay for our rent. Those of us who receive student loans do not receive them for nearly month after our rent is due, and most of the time doesn’t cover the rent in full. This is an unprecedented time and is incredibly stressful financially.

“This is why we didn’t expect our letting agency to send us an email stating that we were to pay rent on April 1, no matter what the situation with our loans or Covid-19 was, threatening us with punitive late fees.

“We hope that Digs work hard to resolve this dispute and work out solutions with their landlords that work for us tenants who won’t be able to pay rent, or have essentially moved out of their property due to Covid-19.”

Copy of the email initially sent to tenants – courtesy of Digs Rent Strike group

A Digs spokesman told Bristol24/7 the company is doing all it can to help in the midst of the current crisis and bosses have donated an apartment for NHS staff.

In a second email to tenants, the letting agent said: “We can assure you that we appreciate that these are incredibly difficult times for everyone in the country, whether students, working people or businesses. There is no one unaffected by this pandemic and we of course appreciate that stress levels and anxiety are high.”

The company operates purely as an agency, thus collecting rent on behalf of landlords, and says the ‘mortgage holiday’ measures don’t apply to many of its accommodation owners

The spokesman said it is prepared to talk to tenants on an individual basis if they are struggling to pay rent.

The email from Digs to students continued: “We always aim to treat each and every one of our customers properly. Especially at this time, we want to be able to support you, it’s a partnership and we want to work together.

“Unfortunately, the legalities are such that the tenancies are still valid and hence the rents do have to be paid, this is also the government guidelines at this time. It is a difficult situation for both our landlords and our student tenants, and we are happy to talk to any student in difficulties.”

Main photo courtesy of Digs Rent Strike group

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