By Max Kendix and Toby Donegan-Cross
The student group “Cuth’s Ripped Off” have launched a campaign to give Durham students the ‘right to refuse’ in-person house viewings, as well as calling for a delay in the release of properties, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Last week, the group sent an open letter to estate agents across Durham city, which has been signed by a coalition of “Ripped Off” groups, from Collingwood, Josephine Butler, St Aidan’s, and University College, as well as the Durham Tenants’ Union and Durham University Working Class Students Association.
In the letter, the group argue that online viewings are perfectly feasible, and given a current ban on meeting others indoors in Durham and a rising number of cases nationwide, it is inappropriate for estate agents and landlords to force tenants to open their doors to students.
The current Government advice states: “Where possible, you should use virtual viewings before visiting properties in person in order to minimise public health risks [… and] in-person viewings should only take place when buyers are seriously considering a property”. Agents can also ask tenants to conduct virtual viewings.
As well as giving tenants a “right to refuse” in-person viewings, the letter argues that estate agents should push back the dates of property releases to Epiphany Term. It says this will allow first-year students to meet more people and find housing groups that suit them, rather than being pressured to sign housing for an already uncertain future during the pandemic.
“Foremostly, we are concerned about the forthcoming mental health implications for students living in inappropriate households and properties during the 2021-2022 academic year. This will cause problems for landlords and estate agents down the line, as tenants try to leave contracts they felt pressured and rushed into signing”, says the letter.
Cuth’s Ripped Off is one of a number of student groups in Durham which campaigns mainly against the rise in university accommodation fees, but also against other issues such as the laying off of University staff and inadequate student services.
Durham’s student letting season comes comparatively early in the year, often leaving first years with a disadvantage in finding homes. In October 2019, students queued outside the estate agency J. W. Wood in order to secure a property, worried that the best would go.
Palatinate reported in 2018 that the same agency had signed 127 out of their 142 properties by the 15th November.
Most estate agents in Durham are not the landlords of the properties they manage, and can only make a recommendation to landlords on when their properties should be marketed and whether to provide a discount on rent due to the pandemic.
In recent years, student groups have tried to challenge the rush for housing by launching the “Take Time to Sign” campaign, pointing out that there are more available rooms than students in Durham.
Jack Pearce, co-chair of Cuth’s Ripped Off, told Palatinate: “It’s now more important than ever that the estate agents and landlords of Durham are socially responsible; right now this means not pressuring freshers into signing houses this term (who are already having a difficult enough time as it is) as well as making sure Durham students have the right to refuse physical viewings in the homes they are living in this year.
“Coronavirus is already on the rise again in this area, meaning we can’t see our friends indoors. Why are house viewings an exception to this when they can be done virtually, just like our lectures?”
Palatinate contacted Durham estate agents for comment. Some said they would practice a “right to refuse” policy, with Bill Free Homes saying that while they have a legal right and government guidance on our side, they would not “impose viewings on people if they don’t want anybody in”. Ben Charles Estate Agent also agreed with the principle.
Others said they would stick to government guidelines only. Glynn Rudge, Area Lettings Director for Reeds Rains, commented: “We take the health and well-being of our customers and colleagues very seriously, particularly at this current time, and as such we are following government guidelines in relation to Covid-19 to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
“In relation to Durham, we have already spoken with our existing landlords and invested into viewing alternatives with the objective to carry out virtual viewings of properties where available to do so.
“Although we are keen to support the house selection process virtually, we must also listen to our customers who wish to satisfy their own needs and conduct a socially distanced physical viewing. We will always follow the guidance provided by the government in the protection of our customers and colleagues.”
Image: Amana Moore