“Completely and wilfully ignored”: pests and mould in Durham City student accommodation

By and

Students have provided Palatinate with testimonies of their experiences of privately renting student accommodation in Durham, with several testimonies describing unsanitary living conditions due to mould and pests.

One student, who did not wish to name the landlord or estate agency they were renting from, said that they could hear rats in the walls of their property: “The worst part was when we started to get lots of flies in the house, swarms of them.”

Some students told us that estate agents were often slow to respond. In reference to growing mould in their property, again from an unspecified agency or landlord, one tenant said: “We’ve inquired multiple times and nothing has happened”.

Several of the reports have related to houses managed by Frampton and Roebuck. 

Some reports focused on issues with housing when students first moved into the property. One Frampton and Roebuck tenant told Palatinate: “When coming into my property for the first time, I discovered that there were large patches of mould in my room. We complained about this to Frampton and Roebuck, but to no avail. Because of this, I had to request an extension to my stay in college accommodation. 

“After weeks of complaining they finally sent someone round to tackle the mould. It’s infuriating to think that if we hadn’t bombarded them about this it would’ve probably just been swept under the carpet.”

Another student’s testimony stated that their property had not been cleaned before they moved in, and that they experienced health problems after staying only briefly in their property, which contained mould. 

“When we got in there I could feel my eyes start to water but I just thought it was a bit of pollen as it was summer. The place was disgusting with grime and dirt covering every possible surface. There were random things everywhere and old food in the fridge and freezer.” 

They say they then noticed black mould in the property, and became ill soon after. The student explained that Frampton and Roebuck promised constantly throughout the summer to address the mould, but that when they returned in late summer to check, the mould had not been adequately dealt with. 

“Between the travel, the hotel [to stay in because the place was not liveable], and the time out of my summer job to visit Durham, it isn’t an exaggeration to say it has cost me over £650.”

A third student also experienced mould in a Frampton and Roebuck property: “On the first day of the tenancy we moved in and the house smelled strange.”

“Within a week of living at the property, all of us started to experience varying degrees of mental and physical illness. We all had respiratory problems and other issues.”

A Frampton and roebuck tenant

Palatinate requested comment from Frampton and Roebuck about the procedures in place for ensuring that properties were sanitary when tenants moved in. They said: “Due to the nature of student tenancies in Durham, where tenancy contracts are almost always 52 weeks in length, whilst we endeavour to ensure that all properties are professionally cleaned and sanitary in preparation for all tenants to arrive, in the height of the season, there can sometimes be instances where we find that one tenant moves out the day before a new tenant moves in. 

“In such instances, property cleans are prioritised depending on the arrival dates and times of those incoming tenants and any necessary repairs are dealt with accordingly. We would never simply not get a property cleaned, but sometimes it is unavoidable that cleaners have to work around tenants over the first few days of the tenancy.

“In terms of reporting issues to our team, we have recently introduced a ‘Report a Repair’ function on our website to improve the process for tenants to highlight concerns, however urgent they may be, but crucially to take photographs and log that they have made a report to us.”

Student testimonies also specified issues further on in tenancies. One testimony, which did not specify an agency or landlord, said that problems with plumbing were not adequately addressed: “We had sewage coming up our shower drain and unusable toilets sometimes for days at a time before they came in to try to fix it so I would have to walk from our house to the library to use the toilet. We were blamed for these problems and unfairly accused of causing them.”

The same account also stated that there were issues with a pest in the property: “I noticed a growing pile of dirt/sand in our living room that was under a floorboard.” The account states that they saw the pest coming in and out of this pile, and sent an image to their agency or landlord: “They replied that it seemed to be accumulated hair and dust from normal use of the room.” The student said that this did not seem possible.

One of the aforementioned students, who reported to Frampton and Roebuck the presence of mould in the property, found that their issue was not resolved for several months: “When we came back in October we thought it had been properly taken care of. They’d stripped the whole kitchen out and redecorated it and told us it was a leak from a kitchen tap. 

“We had sewage coming up our shower drain and unusable toilets sometimes for days at a time. I would have to walk from our house to the library to use the toilet.”

A tenant with an unspecified agency or landlord

“Within a week of living at the property, all of us started to experience varying degrees of mental and physical illness. We all had respiratory problems and other issues. 

“We then pulled back a sofa in our living room and found the worst black mould growing all over the wall and the walls in the house were damp to touch. We argued with the agency endlessly, asking them to get reports done, to fix the issue, to give us compensation. 

“At this point I feel like agencies in Durham do nothing to protect the welfare of students and I felt my ongoing and very disruptive problems in the house were completely and wilfully ignored. I’ve found the ordeal incredibly difficult and upsetting.”

Stating that they were unable to break the contract on the grounds of the damp and black mould, the student says they are now double renting, which is “breaking the bank”.

Another student told Palatinate that they had an infestation of pests inside their Frampton and Roebuck property. Council pest control were contacted on recommendation of the estate agency, who attempted to address the problem. The student said that weeks later the problem was still not fully solved, and that the estate agency took a long time to fully address the issue.

They said: “Having to deal with the stress of pests in your house as well as having academic stress is something no student should have to go through.”

Palatinate asked Frampton and Roebuck for comment on these testimonies, and, in particular, whether they believe they are doing enough to uphold their duty of care towards students. They said: “Whether a reported issue is a routine repair, or the other extreme of a property damaged by flood, for example, all matters are prioritised and resolved as expediently as possible. 

“Our team and appointed contractors do more than enough to uphold our duty of care towards students.”

“I feel like agencies in Durham do nothing to protect the welfare of students”

A frampton and roebuck tenant

They continued, more broadly, that “whilst issues with mould growth and condensation are certainly not unheard of in student housing, it is true that we have noticed something of an increase in such cases in the last two years, including in properties where there has never been a problem in the past.  We believe a possible explanation for this could be to do with the increased amount of time students are spending in their houses, specifically in bedrooms due to remote/online teaching.

“Understandably, our years of prior knowledge of a property, or the thoughts of the landlord will be of little reassurance or consequence to the tenant who now has visible mould/mildew staining in their bedroom. In such scenarios, our first response is to try and advise on ventilation, inquire about their living habits, and of course find out if there may be any defects or ventilation faults in the property to establish what might be a cause. 

“It is no coincidence as to why we, our landlords and fellow agents have experienced more examples of mould and moisture complaints over the past 2 years than in all our years in this industry.

“With the introduction in 2018 of the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES), properties are better insulated, better heated and subject to having working extractors etc, should in theory be better ventilated to cope with the amount of moisture created by the number of occupants. The only factor which has changed in recent years, is that of the time spent indoors by the occupants.

“We are not for one second simply implying that it is therefore 100% the fault of the students themselves, but we have found that it is important to work together and look at all factors in order to resolve issues that occur.”

Palatinate also received an account pertaining to a property rented out by Harringtons. The student said: “The biggest overall problem was the entire complaints system. They would make you file a request on an online portal and then they would get back to you quicker or slower depending on how bad the problem was.

“On a Friday evening we noticed an unusual noise like a buzzing or hissing and we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. In the morning I filed a request on the portal (although this proved almost impossible as I didn’t actually know what the problem was) and I tried to call them. There was just a voicemail saying that they no longer operated an out of hours or emergency line. 

“So we had to wait until Monday when I rang them and they reluctantly sent someone to the property. That evening they finally sent a gas engineer round to investigate. As it turns out, we didn’t have a gas leak, but instead a burst water pipe. The point is it could have been much worse and we had no way of contacting them. It was very stressful.”

“Our team and appointed contractors do more than enough to uphold our duty of care towards students.”

Frampton and roebuck

Harringtons were contacted for comment, and responded: “We can confirm all repair requests are dealt with in a priority order, as I am sure you can appreciate a smashed window will be dealt with quicker than a broken chair. Therefore, urgent repair requests are appeased in a more timely manner than those deemed to be trivial repair requests.

“Unfortunately, our emergency out of hours number was being abused by students under the influence of alcohol especially in the early hours over a weekend. We monitored the calls over a number of weeks and found that none of the calls received were actually deemed to be emergencies and were instead reports of broadband issues or they had lost their keys on a night out, neither of which are the fault of Harringtons, yet our staff were experiencing sleepless nights due these calls.

“Harringtons contacted all tenants before the Christmas break providing them with emergency contact details should they require a contractor out of hours, such as a gas engineer should their boiler stop working and the gas network for any gas leaks.  Presumably this tenant has not thought to use these contact details when this issue has occurred on a Friday night.

“In addition to the above, all of our tenants are provided with a property pack when they collect their keys at the start of their tenancy which includes all professional certificates for the property. The certificates provided clearly show the name & contact details of the engineers which carried out the works and so our tenants have contractor information from day 1 of their tenancy with our company.

“This report was addressed first thing on Monday morning and was immediately instructed to an external contractor as Harringtons are not qualified gas engineers. We have spoken to the contractors who have confirmed they then attended the property that same day.”

Image: Mark Norton

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