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Tenants criticise “grossly inadequate” pandemic response by Urbanest accommodation

empty london streets amidst student exodus Urbanest
Credit: Stella White/emptylondonstreets Instagram

Leading accommodation provider, Urbanest, is being criticised for “grossly inadequate” policies amidst the pandemic. Many tenants have been unable to take up their accommodation but still face the prospect of having to pay rents of over £1000 a month.

Dan Lawes, 2nd year BSc International Relations & History at LSE, has started a petition calling for Urbanest to allow fellow tenants to terminate their contracts, as they had in March 2020, or to “postpone their contracts and waive their accommodation fees until a date in which they intend to return”.

He said to Roar: “Throughout this pandemic, Urbanest’s policies have failed to put students first. They have refused to offer students the ability to terminate their contract or waive their accommodation fees until a date in which they can safely return despite this being the sector’s standard. This is all whilst advertising a ‘flexible booking’ approach on their social media and website.”

For instance, tenants requesting to leave early have been asked to find a replacement tenant, which according to Lawes, is “impossible in the current situation” – a sentiment many affected students agree with.

Tenants have been offered the chance to apply for a 30% reduction on rent, which is subtracted at the end of all payments. As Lawes put it: “A tenant has told us she has been threatened that this 30% will not be applied if this month’s rent (due this week) is not paid despite Urbanest knowing that we are awaiting the results of the petition.”

This means that a typical tenant paying £1400 a month for a room in Westminster Bridge would total £4227 from New Year until the end of March, despite the majority not returning to London in compliance with government advice.

Dan Lawes said: “Representatives living at Urbanest Kings Cross have mentioned that they are on average being charged £1321.92 per month which leaves a £3,965.76 cost”, although many would be paying more.

Lawes continued: “Most students had rent removed from their account automatically (if Urbanest had their card saved) on the DAY the lockdown was announced- so despite them knowing a lockdown was being put into place, they charged an entire month worth of rent.”

Furthermore, many students have made the case that the fees they have to pay, even if they are present in the accommodation, are not worth the service they are receiving under current circumstances. While students are happy to pay full rent for open study spaces and common areas, these areas close early in order to supposedly curb the spread of the coronavirus even though there is hardly anyone in the building during this lockdown.

Urbanest tenants in isolation directly told Roar of their difficulties. One student at Urbanest Vauxhall reported receiving a warning for breaching her isolation terms when a friend simply left food outside of her closed door. The same student reported that although Urbanest faculty was obligated to bring any deliveries to her room during this time, reception staff ignored the Uber Eats driver carrying her food, forcing other students to go collect it. Another student noted that when she was isolating after arriving at her Urbanest accommodation from another country in September, she also faced issues with food delivery. While King’s promised isolating students free breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the first three days, students sometimes did not receive breakfast and were forced to eat leftover boxes from breakfast for lunch.

Additionally, students report that while Urbanest’s attempts to keep residents safe during the pandemic are respectable, their enforcement has been unfair. For instance, while a single flat is classed as a “household”, one household at Urbanest Vauxhall reported that a security guard entered their flat, accused the flat’s eight members of being within different households, told them to “go to bed”, and watched them to make sure they all went back to their rooms.

Finally, there have been issues with Urbanest’s mask-wearing policies. While one source told Roar she is “happy to wear a mask”, upon once forgetting when going downstairs to pick up a package, reception staff “rudely demanded” she put on a mask while “they weren’t even wearing a mask themselves”.

A number of universities have made mitigating measures. Unite accommodations have cut their rents by half. Michelle Donelan, universities minister, told Times Radio on 2nd February, “We’re urging accommodation providers, universities, and private providers to refund where possible and give a rebate.”

The petition has gained the backing of Larissa Kennedy, the President of the National Union of Students who stated: “As President of the National Union of Students, I fully support the aims of this petition and urge Urbanest to listen to the demands outlined in it and do what is right for students and public health.”

The student tenants of Urbanest are still very much hoping that the company responds with support proportionate to the Covid-19 public health crisis, with Lawes stating: “We encourage Urbanest management to reconsider their offerings to student tenants at this difficult time. They have the chance to right a wrong, let’s hope that they take it.”

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