By Anneka Shah, BA Chinese (Modern and Classical)
Residents of Dinwiddy House and Paul Robeson House are currently preparing to strike for the second time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They will withhold their third and final installment of rent. Amounting to around £2000, this would have otherwise been paid to accommodation provider, Sanctuary Students, on 2 April.
Students are keen to strike because they have not been able to stay in their university accommodation since Christmas and feel there has been a lack of on-campus learning opportunities. First year Bsc Management student, Ali Imran, has already paid for a year’s contract at Dinwiddy House, but estimates he has only spent 40 days at the halls since the start of the academic year. He was surprised that the university would not be supporting student renters: ‘I always thought [that as] a student, the university would cooperate fully with you.’ He felt that realistically he may not be able to get his rent returned, but hopes that residents could be compensated or offered incentives in other ways such as vouchers.
‘currently the question on most renters’ minds is “SOAS, where are you?”’
Oscar Ward, the SOAS Students’ Union (SU) Accommodation Officer, was also shocked by the lack of support from the university and said that currently the question on most renters’ minds is ‘SOAS, where are you?’ He further explained that while the strikers themselves will lead the campaign, the SU will be offering them support and solidarity. In contrast to Imran, Ward felt that vouchers as compensation would be an ‘insult’ to the students.
The university were contacted for comment and said: ‘While SOAS does not provide or own any accommodation we fully sympathise with the situation students are currently facing. We have been engaging with our providers where possible to raise students’ concerns and have offered support through student advice and wellbeing. We have also been urging students to read the accommodation providers Covid-19 policy before signing their accommodation contract to understand what measures are in place relating to living arrangements and release policies…’
Due to the long administrative processes involved, it is difficult to know how many students will be striking. Imran feels that only those who have not been able to live in the halls will take part, but Ward stated ‘students [at the halls] also have rights’ as they have received subpar accommodation and treatment this year. An anonymous international student, who has continuously stayed at Dinwiddy House since 4 October, said they will not be striking: ‘I can’t help but to feel that Sanctuary [Students] has held its side of the deal. They have delivered me what they promised: a place to stay.’ The resident did, however, sympathise with home students who have not been able to return to halls, saying those who are ‘unable to return to London… are still being charged rent. This is unacceptable.’
Ward claimed that Sanctuary Students are not offering an option for students to leave their contracts. Imran feels that the company ‘should have given benefit[s] to the students’ and allowed them not to pay, given the Government advice is to avoid returning to halls. Sanctuary Students have been contacted for comment but have not replied as of the day of publication.
The SU has recently declared a housing emergency at SOAS in which they call upon the university to take a ‘loud public stance in support of the rent striking students’ and ‘ensure national governmental policy change regarding release from contract and payment obligations in Covid-19 circumstances.’ Ward hopes this would offer support to students in private housing, who he understands are in a situation where it is more complicated to withhold rent. He also wants this to bring about long-term changes for students, so they have better chances to find affordable, high-quality housing in the future.
Last year, students at Dinwiddy House took part in rent strikes when they were forced to return home during the UK’s first lockdown. This resulted in a legal battle, which is ongoing as of the day of publication. Ward highlighted that this year’s strikers will have more knowledge, are better prepared and should not see the need for legal action. Imran sends a message that despite the uncertain outcome of last year’s campaign ‘students should not lose hope’ when striking this coming April.
Photo caption: Dinwiddy House, one of the halls where residents will withhold their rent. (Credit: Sanctuary Students/Frances Howe)