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500 Hallam students join rent strike

A campaign has been launched against lockdown rent demands and safety failings in Sheffield halls of residence.

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SHU Rent Strike organiser Zac Larkham says most students haven't had any face-to-face teaching.

500 students at Sheffield Hallam University are now refusing to pay rent, saying that they shouldn't have to pay for accommodation they can't legally use during lockdown.

They have also raised concerns about campus safety, a lack of mental health support and widespread health hazards in Sheffield halls of residence.

They join a national student rent strike – the biggest in 40 years – which is arguing that young people across the country have been exploited for the benefit of corporate landlords.

Zac Larkham, a first year social science student and SHU Rent Strike organiser, feels universities have misled students in order to get them into accommodation.

"They said we'd have face-to-face teaching and most students haven't had any face-to-face teaching, or if they have it's been very little."

Larkham says that thousands of students in Sheffield are now paying between £120 and £150 a week for accommodation they can't legally travel to under coronavirus legislation.

"Some people have chosen to come back, just weighing up on balance whether it's better for their studies to break the law and see if anything happens," he said.

Unlike the University of Sheffield, Hallam don't own or manage any student halls, but they recommend some private halls through a process known as 'Nomination Agreements'.

When asked about the rent strike, Hallam pointed us to an open letter they sent to student landlords and accommodation providers in late January encouraging them to provide refunds and discounts.

"While we recognise that landlords vary in size and situation, we would encourage you all to consider whether you are able to take action to support students at this difficult time," says the letter.

Unite, which owns five halls in Sheffield, has offered residents a 50% refund on rent for the duration of lockdown, but only if they pay the rest upfront.

SHU Rent Strike want accommodation providers to refund all rent for this term and last term, on the basis that almost no face-to-face teaching has taken place.

As well as campaigning against lockdown rent demands, the campaign have tweeted a series of anonymous accounts alleging serious failings within halls of residence linked to Hallam.

These include rat infestations, unresolved maintenance problems including mould and a lack of hot water, invasive security staff and a culture of sexual harassment.

"There are students who have reported to their accommodation security that they've been spiked, and security have told them that that's what they got for being pretty," said Larkham.

"Because the university has outsourced its responsibility, they're either not aware or they can pretend it's not there. They're basically hiring these companies to do it for them and these companies aren't taking it seriously."

Now Then was not able to follow-up on these allegations.

One anonymous student with severe clinical depression said that, after reaching out to Sheffield Hallam, "minimal support" was offered by the university.

A university spokesperson told Now Then they are "acutely aware" that lockdown is having a severe impact on students' mental health, and that they are "doing everything possible" to support them.

"All students have access to three support advisers, and we encourage our students to make use of these services," said the spokesperson.

"The University has made it a priority to increase the visibility and accessibility of our mental health support for students, as well as increasing investment in our service."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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