‘I can’t afford my student housing during lockdown, so I’m striking’

I was working in a pub before the coronavirus outbreak, which was enough to cover my rent at Dinwiddy House in King’s Cross during my first year studying social anthropology at Soas University of London. I was also getting some money from my family back in Poland, to help with food and other basics. But I was put on furlough when the coronavirus lockdown started at the end of March, and I returned home.

I rented from the student housing company Sanctuary Students, who are demanding that I pay during lockdown, even though I don’t use the facilities and left the room completely empty, and also won’t be back in the UK until about January next year because my course is going to be online. This is a time when other housing providers have offered students a pass on this term’s rent, and I strongly believe this is what Sanctuary Students should do too. So, along with around 200 other students, I joined a rent strike.

Sanctuary Students is treating us as if we are only using the pandemic to get away without paying rent, not people who just left their accommodation to be with our families and loved ones due to the virus. Many of us lost jobs and just cannot pay. We agreed that we should stand in solidarity until they release us from our contracts.

I then received a letter from a debt collection company asking me to pay the outstanding debt of £1,735.69 in seven days, threatening me that if not, they would take more direct action against me.

When I got this letter, I talked to the students’ union and they told me they were contacting lawyers to figure out how to approach this. I also told the debt collector that I’m involved in a strike and that they shouldn’t contact me directly, and to negotiate with the students’ union. We wrote an open letter signed by many people who are living in Sanctuary Students housing, and we’re waiting to see what happens next.

I’m very anxious about how this situation will develop. I worry that, if I go back to London next year, I won’t be able to get accommodation, and if I have outstanding debts my credit score will be lowered. 

It hasn’t been possible to work in Poland, so I couldn’t collect enough money to pay the rent even if I wanted to. I can’t be sure I’ll be rehired by the pub when I’m back in the UK either. My parents are trying to help me in any way possible but they can’t do much. They don’t have enough money, and they don’t really understand the situation in London. 

We’re standing firm. If any of us start paying this rent, the strike doesn’t have enough power to make any change. Coronavirus is not over yet and its effects are going to be felt for many months after the pandemic is over. The company needs to understand these aren’t normal circumstances.

  • A spokesperson for Sanctuary Students said they would not comment on individual tenants, but said: “We have not been using debt collectors for any rent arrears accrued during the Covid period. However, there is a very small number of students who may have received a letter from a collection agency. This recovery activity has been suspended during these unprecedented times and we would encourage any students with financial concerns to contact us as we are happy to discuss further flexible payment options.

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