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Students fearful as accommodation giant breaks ‘bills included’ agreement

Weeks before term starts, UniHomes has told some students that bills will no longer be included in rental agreements

Zac Larkham
8 September 2022, 9.55am

Students have been left vulnerable to soaring energy prices

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aberCPC / Alamy Stock Photo

Students have told openDemocracy of their shock and stress after a major accommodation firm reneged on its ‘bills included’ contracts days before they moved in.

On its website, UniHomes, a Sheffield-based platform that works with partner lettings agents across 36 UK cities, promises: “Bills are included in all rent prices. No hidden fees.”

But in recent weeks, UniHomes has emailed student tenants to inform them that their bills will likely be going up – or will no longer be included at all.

It is a major blow to students who have already been saving to cover the previously agreed rent price and are now vulnerable to the whims of a volatile energy market.

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James*, a business management student at Northumbria University, told openDemocracy his letting agent had encouraged him to “go with UniHomes so that I would get a fixed price for the cost of living crisis”.

On 11 June, when James signed for a two-bed house share with UniHomes, it was agreed he and his housemate would together pay £42 a week for his bill package– but not long before they moved in, UniHomes said it expected to increase the price in October.

James is still awaiting an announcement from UniHomes as to how much the bills will go up.

“It’s not nice, having the whole year budgeted and calculated to then be told a week before moving in that they’re gonna up the prices to however they see fit,” he said. “It’s pretty shocking really.”

With the gas price increase in October and January, we aren’t sure we are going to be able to afford to live

Chloe Field, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), branded the decision “highly irresponsible” and said students risk “falling into poverty” unless action is taken to prevent “spiralling living costs”.

Students’ rent in privately owned properties already takes up an average of 74% of the maximum maintenance loan – rising to 97% in cities like Bath, Bristol and Manchester – according to a recent report by property company Cushman & Wakefield.

It is not surprising then, that a Nationwide survey found two-thirds of students are “struggling to pay housing costs”, with one in seven worrying they may become homeless. The situation may now worsen, as many have previously been protected from energy rises.

‘I didn’t know what to do’

UniHomes has hit some students with an even bigger shock – telling them it can no longer include their bills in its price at all.

In March, when Portsmouth University student Aleesha Malik was searching for accommodation for the 2022-23 academic year, she turned to UniHomes specifically because she wanted a contract that included bills.

“We wanted peace of mind on our energy and water usage but also to ensure there were no disputes about bills,” said Aleesha. “We didn’t want to be those students you hear about that wear coats because they can't afford their heating.”

But on 17 August, two weeks before her move-in date, UniHomes told Aleesha that the house was on a pre-payment energy meter – meaning bills could not be included in the rent as agreed. They will now have to pay separately.

“It's been incredibly stressful,” she told openDemocracy.

“It might seem like we've got it sorted, but with the gas price increase in October and January, we aren't sure we are going to be able to afford to live.”

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Dylan, another student at Portsmouth University, who asked us not to publish his last name, was put in the same position by UniHomes during the last academic year.

He moved into his new home to find there was a pre-payment meter – despite UniHomes having said all bills would be included. When Dylan complained, UniHomes told him to put money on the meter and then send the firm the receipt to claim back his costs.

“We asked for [the meter] to be removed as our food would go bad when the power ran out,” Dylan said. “[UniHomes] promised us it would be gone by the New Year but then claimed there were no technicians available, so we were stuck with the meter for this whole year having to top it up and get refunds.

“When we were skint, we wouldn’t use the power because we didn’t have money to do it.”

In March, as energy bills started to rise, Dylan was told his bill would increase by almost 33%. “I had to threaten to withhold rent and go on rent strike to get them to put the bills back to the agreed amount,” he says.

‘An attempt to maximise profits’

UniHomes owns no properties but advertises packages with fixed-price utility bills that remain the same throughout the tenancy.

At some point in the past six months, though, UniHomes made changes to the terms and conditions on its website. These included an amendment to a clause titled “Our right to make changes”, which added the words “including the Charges” in brackets to things UniHomes can change at will. The company says it has not changed the terms and conditions of any customer contract.

Another firm under the UniHomes umbrella has also been accused of misleading students.

In 2021, UniHomes acquired student utilities FinTech firm, Split the Bills – another Sheffield-based start-up that combines a student household’s energy, water, broadband and TV bills into one payment, which is then split between housemates.

Split the Bills targets students who may not have rented through UniHomes, but are looking for an energy provider. The website currently says there are “no hidden charges, you’ll pay the same amount each month”.

Ahead of the Ofgem price cap announcement on 26 August, students who’d signed up to Split the Bills received emails saying: “It is expected we will need to increase the cost of your package from October.”

This is an attempt to maximise profits at the expense of students already hit by the cost of living crisis and lowered maintenance loans

Durham student Noel* moved into his house in early July – having signed a contract with Split the Bills that should have fixed his energy bills at £20 a month. In August, he received an email from Split the Bills that said his bills would probably go up in the autumn.

To make matters worse, Noel’s energy supplier has accused him of owing more than £100 – even though he has paid Split the Bills for the past two months.

Noel told openDemocracy: “I'm stressed about the uncertainty around my bills. I can barely afford to pay once, let alone twice.

“SSE say I owe them £114 at the moment. I don't know what will happen if I don't pay SSE. Split the Bills has told me [the problem] is fixed, but I'm still getting bills and payment reminders from SSE.”

He added: “If I don't pay it could hurt my credit score, and might even see me and my housemates without electricity and water. It's really unfair. I can't tell if it's malice or just incompetence.”

Speaking to openDemocracy, a spokesperson from Rent Strike Now, called the situation “a blatant attempt by companies to maximise their profits at the expense of students already hit hard by the cost of living crisis and lowered maintenance loans”.

They added: “The only way to reverse these changes is through collective action.”

Phil Greaves, the co-founder of UniHomes, told openDemocracy: “We have been working hard to shield customers as much as we can, although as a last resort we will have to pass on some of the costs of the price cap if it rises in October as currently planned.

“It’s clear that the scale of the national crisis requires long-term action from the government, and we are sorry that we can’t do more ourselves to protect our customers.”

Greaves added that UniHomes is calling on the government to action “an immediate increase in maintenance grants” as well as “writing-off debt from maintenance and academic loans”.

*Some names have been changed

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