Information to Tenants and Staff on the Effects of Coronavirus on Unipol’s Services

02/06/2020

This note was issued on 2nd June 2020 updating those previously issued on 23rd May 2020, 15th May, 21st April, 9th April 2020, 4th April 2020, 31st March 2020, 25th March, 23rd March, 20th March 2020 and 17th March 2020.

Following the launch of the UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy which encourages a return to work whilst emphasising the continuing importance of working from home where possible, Covid-Secure Guidance (11th May 2020) has been issued dealing with relevant health and safety requirements.

Unipol is committed to providing as much information as possible about how we are responding to the current situation to our tenants and service users.

In developing these operational procedures we have been mindful of the advice issued by Public Health England and the institutions of higher education who we work closely with. We have also had to strike a balance between providing services to tenants and the need to offer the best protection we can to our staff. Many of our property management routines are important in maintaining regulatory compliance with other important health and safety routines and we also need access to properties in order to undertake repairs and investigate problems that are reported to us.

Unipol’s tenants and staff have a wide range of risk levels, ranging from housing some elderly residents, some older students, those with pre-existing medical conditions, families with children and younger people sharing facilities in cluster flats and houses. We have tried to make our operational processes appropriate to all these groups.

Tenants Wanting to Return to their Accommodation and Collect their Belongings

It is now possible for students in England to return to their accommodation to collect their belongings. In England, on 21st May 2020  the Government gave the following advice available on the media blog or Government website

The media blog copy reads

Can I collect my belongings from my student accommodation?

We know many of you are concerned about collecting your belongings from your term-time accommodation. That was not possible under the previous guidance but the government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy published on 11 May sets out a cautious roadmap to ease those measures in a safe and measured way.

While all of us should stay at home as much as possible to protect ourselves and other people, the strategy allows for certain necessary travel if people take precautions in line with the principles in Annex A of the strategy and other published guidance, such as on travel and social distancing.

This means that, if you are a student who left student accommodation in England and now wishes to travel back to that accommodation to recover your belongings, you can do so providing you continue to avoid public transport wherever possible and follow the latest travel and social distancing guidance of the nation where you are currently residing.

You should discuss a date and time to collect your belongings with your accommodation provider. Most higher education providers will contact tenants of university accommodation about arrangements, but if you rent privately-owned accommodation you should contact the provider directly. Please be patient if your collection time needs to be set for future weeks to allow for appropriate social distancing to be maintained.”

Please be aware that this guidance does not deal with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It has been estimated that 70% of student rooms still have possessions in them. Sometimes belongings have been neatly packed ready for collection but sometimes the flat has simply just been left, although most tenants have cleared the fridge and removed any raw or waste food.

It is important that the process of returning is structured to comply with Covid-Secure procedures.

In the case of smaller properties, Unipol ask that tenants coordinate movements between themselves in order to avoid everyone trying to unload or load their belongings together in the household which would compromise social distancing between visitors to any flat or house. If anyone was self isolating then special arrangements will need to be made.

In complexes (Mill Street, Carlton Hill, Alexander Court, Garden House, the Student Hideout and New York Buildings) Unipol will have already emailed you about more detailed collection arrangements and in these cases it will be necessary to book a slot for collection to stop too much movement within each building which would compromise social distancing. It is important that you use this system. If you just “turn up” and Unipol judges there is too much movement in a given building then access to that building (and the availability of car parking) will be curtailed immediately.

It is important that you tell us when you have fully moved out so that we can track when a property still has belongings in it and when it is likely to be fully vacated.

There is no rush to collect your belongings but please, do not leave everything until the last few days because not everyone will be able to pick up belongings and maintain social distancing and these arrangements are for your (and others’) safety.

There are a few other matters that are worth considering when coming back:

  • transport will be almost entirely by car and some parents/students will have a long “there and back” drive with only limited opportunities to stop for refreshments and toilet facilities. Many parents travelling long distances frequently break their journeys by staying part-way in a hotel and that will not be possible. Those returning should be made aware of the lack of facilities en-route although most garages and motorway service stations toilet facilities are now open.
  • toilet facilities will be provided at Mill Street and Carlton Hill and cleaning routines will be in place to support this, so long as you attend in your booked slot
  • students have received their end of tenancy information to ensure that they know to clean their room and the communal areas and ensure the property is left in a reasonable condition, free of waste and that the keys are returned in a timely manner.

Unipol does not have storage facilities, but if a tenant has left their accommodation and is unable to return (i.e.; is overseas) then you should contact Unipol to see if a bespoke arrangement can be made. If your only option is a packing service, then get in touch and we can provide you with a list of companies.

2020-2021 Academic Year

We told you that Unipol were considering what arrangements we would make to start new tenancies for this coming July. Unipol’s trustees met on Friday 29th May 2020 and we have now put in place a number of measures that should help you to take up your tenancy from July.

We really look forward to you either remaining or coming back to Leeds and we think many students will want to spend some time living in Leeds with their friends over the summer period.

Because of the unique situation with the Coronavirus pandemic, like you, we have been waiting to see what is happening to the next academic year. It is our impression from talking to the educational institutions with who we work (many of who have representatives on our Board) that all are planning to operate their term dates roughly as planned and that it is reasonable to conclude that, subject to a backwards move in the progress of Covid-19 and a second lockdown, that students will return to study in September/October in the context of a “new normal” situation.

Managed Tenancies

We have written to our managed owners asking them to take their decisions by Monday 8th June 2020 after which we will write to those tenants and prove them with information. Tenants affected by this will already have been sent a “holding letter”. The information that follows is for Unipol owned and leased properties.

Tenancies Beginning on July 1st 2020 - Health and Safety

Unipol has around 1,400 tenancies that run over 52 weeks where tenants normally changeover on July 1st. Our trustees have considered two important health and safety areas which will affect the start of our tenancies:

  • social distancing when people are moving in (normally involving parents and friends as well as students)
  • cleaning and the removal of contamination (the Covid-19 virus) from properties prior to occupation by a new household.

Just to reassure you, there is no social distancing between tenants within a property and this will be no different from how your household works now.

Unipol normally uses a complex logistics system to turn tenancies round within a three day period at the end of June and the opening days of July. Unipol’s contractual obligations to you are that all properties will be fully in-depth cleaned within the first three days of the tenancy. This normally works well.

This does, however, mean that there is a lot of human activity within these properties around 30th June/1st July: tenants leaving on the last day, tenants arriving on the first day, contractors and cleaners getting the properties ready for occupation. It has been concluded that this level of activity is incompatible with the current advice on social distancing and therefore our normal arrangements will need to change.

There is the added challenge posed by the risk of the Covid-19 virus. A property could be fully cleaned but still infected. Unipol carries out a deep clean of all of its properties each year and this would mean the infection risk would be significantly reduced but there are issues with the virus surviving on soft furnishings, carpets and fabrics that are not all cleaned together with the risk of re-infection from servicing staff, particularly cleaners. These risks apply equally to student tenants visiting parents, contractors and Unipol staff.

There is specific Guidance on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings (15th May 2020)

which states:

“The infection risk from coronavirus (COVID-19) following contamination of the environment decreases over time. It is not yet clear at what point there is no risk. However, studies of other viruses in the same family suggest that, in most circumstances, the risk is likely to be reduced significantly after 72 hours.”

On that basis Unipol will implement a minimum 3 day “fallow period” of non-occupation for all new tenants.

This will mean that you will need to move out of your current accommodation and take your belongings home and then return to Unipol accommodation after the “fallow period”. It will not be possible for you to simply move your belongings from one property straight into another.

This will also be Unipol’s general advice to owners in Leeds.

There are two exceptions to this:

  • the first is where a student has no option to return “home” and in those cases special arrangements can be made to either store belongings for a short period of time or allow a single day move between properties. In this case you will need to tell us about this not later than Friday 19th June 2020. After that time we cannot offer that service.
  • the second, is where a tenant is moving within a house or building. If we think you fall into this category we will have already written to you. If you have not heard from us by 9.00am on Thursday 4th June 2020 then we might have made a mistake and please get in touch with us straight away to let us know about this.

In the case of a single-day move Unipol will use a special decontamination process that “fogs” the whole house or flat removing any infection or contamination. This requires the flat to be entirely empty and sealed for 4 hours (the chemicals used are dangerous to humans). This process is both expensive and complex and it is estimated that we can only offer this service to around 20 properties - so it is not an option for everyone.

So, just to be clear, in order that we can properly clean your property and ensure it is safe to move into we need to have the property empty for several days. Although your tenancy begins on 1st July we do not want you to move into your property until after 2.00pm on Wednesday 8th July 2020.

When you do move in, it will also be important that you arrange your arrival times with your housemates so that not everyone tries to move in at the same time. If you are living in a house (subject to agreement from your housemates) we will provide you with contact details of your housemates and you can arrange this yourself. It is important you do this: if, say, five students all turn up at once to move in with assisted by two parents or friends that would mean 15 people moving around in a small space and it would be impossible to maintain anything like the social distance that is required to non-householders.

If you are living in a flat in Alexander Court or New York Buildings then Unipol will set up a booking system that you can use that will give you a time slot when you can arrive.

Tenancies Beginning on July 1st 2020 - Rent

As a charity and not for profit housing provider, in setting and charging rents, Unipol only seeks to cover its costs and provide a good service to students. There is no profit or allowance that we can dip into to fund fallow periods. 

Our trustees have unanimously decided (and they include representatives from the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University and both of their students’ unions) that the current circumstances are wholly exceptional and Unipol will need to borrow money to fund what we have decided.

In considering this matter our trustees took into account that:

  • asking you to delay your move in will be inconvenient and, for many, this will mean two trips to Leeds rather than one
  • many students and parents will have seen a radical realignment of their financial circumstances. Many students who continue to live in Leeds over the summer often have temporary jobs which may now have been lost and parents’ own incomes may have been badly affected.
  • if we wished to offer any reduction in rent we would need to help all of our tenants, whether or not they are present, but our decision should favour those who want to live in Leeds with their friends
  • taking these decisions now means that both students/parents can plan their logistics and finances properly.

Unipol has decided that it will therefore give a rent reduction of 50% of for its own direct-let properties from 1st July 2020 to 31st August 2020.  The 50% rental refund applies only to those tenancies that are let at the full rental value during this period (some tenancies already have rent reduced or rent free periods and they are unaffected). This rent reduction will apply to:

  • off-street shared student houses (leased and owned)
  • bedsits and couple properties
  • shared student flats at Alexander Court and New York Buildings.

This 50% reduction will be made across the board for simplicities sake, so if you are staying in the same house or room where you do not need to move this reduction will still apply. If you are paying us by direct debit Unipol can adjust this ourselves. If you are paying by other methods you should make sure that your payment is correct. Students who have already paid rent for this period will be given a 50% refund. Please be patient whilst refunds are being processed.

This offer is costing Unipol £335,000 and is designed to ease the rental burden of your tenancy over this summer period. We hope this is useful.

There are some terms to this offer to reduce your rent that you will need to agree:

  • properties (aside from tenants remaining in their same room or building or where a special arrangement has been made with Unipol) must remain vacant between 1st July and 2.00pm on 8th July 2020 to allow for greater cleaning, decontamination and ensure the maintenance of social distancing
  • tenants must pay the remaining 50% of the rent within a reasonable time. If you need to reschedule your payments then please contact the finance office and do this on a planned basis.
  • if you simply move into your property on 1st July 2020, without falling into any of the categories listed above then you will pay your full rent from July 1st and the offer of a rental reduction is withdrawn.

Unless there is a return to Levels 4 or 5 on the Government Coivid-19 scale (known as lockdown) trustees have already decided that they will not be considering any further rent reductions within your tenancy period.

Change of Circumstances and Leaving Your Tenancy

Unipol is aware that there may be some students whose own (or family) circumstances have changed dramatically over the last few weeks and they may be planning not to return to University or College next year or they can no longer afford the rent they are contracted to pay. Unipol is offering all of its direct-let tenants whether they wish to be considered, on exceptional grounds, to be released from their contract.

If you do want to make out a case then you need to make those representations to us not later than midday on 10th June 2020.

Unipol has established a special panel who will consider those requests and take decisions on 12th June 2020 and tenants will be informed of our decision not later than 15th June 2020. After that time Covid-19 related requests will not be considered further. Unipol’s Tenancy Release Group exists to consider other exceptional requests to leave and end tenancies and that will continue to function throughout the year and details can be found at https://www.unipol.org.uk/footer/governance/advisory-groups-and-forums/the-tenancy-release-group

Again, we hope this is helpful.

Summary

Just to emphasise the main points again (with more detail being given above):

  • Details for tenants of Managed Properties will not be available until after 8th June 2020. For Unipol owned and leased tenants the following details apply.
  • Although your tenancy begins on 1st July we do not want you to move into your property until after 2.00pm on Wednesday 8th July 2020, unless you fall into one of the special groups detailed earlier.
  • When you do move in, it will also be important that you arrange your arrival times with your housemates so that not everyone tries to move in at the same time.
  • If you are living in a flat in Alexander Court or New York Buildings then Unipol will set up a booking system that you can use that will give you a time slot when you can arrive.
  • Unipol has decided that it will give a rent reduction of 50% of for its own direct-let properties from 1st July 2020 to 31st August 2020 (please read who this applies to and the conditions attached to this)
  • There may be some students whose own (or family) circumstances have changed dramatically over the last few weeks and Unipol is offering all of its direct-let tenants whether they wish to be considered, on exceptional grounds, to be released from their contract. If you do want to make out a case then you need to make those representations to us not later than midday on 10th June 2020.

Conclusion

As a not for profit charity Unipol is borrowing a very significant sum of money (in excess of £700,000) that has provided rent reductions for our tenants across April to the end of August. We have really tried, in your interest and the interest of future students, to get the balance right within what we can borrow.

We know the moving-in arrangements will cause some inconvenience and will help where there are particular problems but these arrangements are designed to minimise the public risk to health (to yourself, parents and friends, contractors and Unipol staff) and it is important that these are followed properly.

After all that, we are really looking forward to welcoming you to your house or flat and we hope meeting your friends again and living in Leeds will be, even in these difficult times, a really great experience.

Return to Work

The Deputy Chief Executive is co-ordinating Unipol’s health and safety response to ensure that office and service arrangements meet with the relevant guidelines. Some changes have already been implemented, increasing office services (see below under Hub Services).

Unipol has furloughed a relatively small number of staff and the majority of staff continue to work from home and can be contacted in the normal way. At this phase of the COVID-19 recovery strategy it is not envisaged that all staff will return to work in the office and many of the home working arrangements will continue but is obviously the case that many of those involved in managing our portfolio will need to be work in Leeds and visiting properties after that time.

Hub Services

Unipol’s offices in Leeds and Nottingham are open to contractors between 9.00am and 12.00noon. They remain closed to the public but they are staffed 9.00am to 5.00pm and can respond to telephone calls, emails and webchat Many staff are still working from home and can respond quickly to enquiries via webchat, which can be accessed through the Unipol website www.unipol.org.uk or email info@unipol.org.uk.  The Bradford office remains closed and calls to that office are directed to the Leeds office. There will be changes to our opening hours over the next few days and any new opening hours can be found at the foot if our website home page.

Repairs should be reported on line to repairs@unipol.org.uk . For emergency repairs only which present an immediate danger to health or safety, call 0113 2430169

Unipol has suspended physical viewings but our properties can be viewed either on this website or on www.unipolhousing.org.uk. Viewings will re-commence in mid-June and those affected will be informed before then.

Access to Buildings

It is important, for health and safety reasons that we continue to need access to certain buildings, flats and rooms. In many cases Unipol uses external contractors to fulfil certain health and safety routines, cleaning, security and undertake reactive repairs - in these cases we have to rely on our contractors and their own health and safety routines.

Cleaning routines in our developments is continuing, however they are focusing on cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces in communal areas to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Public health advice on COVID-19 and how to stop it spreading has been displayed in all communal areas and has been emailed out to tenants and shared on social media channels.

Unipol staff visiting properties and developments have been provided with alcohol based hand sanitiser and are following Public Health England guidance on good respiratory and hand hygiene. Contractors visiting properties and developments have been contacted and asked to follow Public Health guidance on good respiratory and hand hygiene.

If you report a repair you will be asked to confirm that you are not self-isolating

Tenants who are Self Isolating

If tenants are self-isolating, either because of their own symptoms or because of the symptoms of friends or others in the flat it is important that they inform Unipol of the period of their self-isolation straight away by calling us on 0113 243 0169 Option 2 9am - 5pm Monday - Friday or by contacting us using the repair line email repairs@unipol.org.uk outside of these hours. If you have already told us you do not need to tell us again but if you think you might not have told us then tell us now.

In these cases access to the room or flat/house will be limited to the absolutely necessary. This means:

  • no pro-active maintenance (such as painting or carpet replacement).
  • only essential repairs will be undertaken where it would be dangerous to leave matters unattended.
  • Once the period of self-isolation has ended then we will do what we can to help.

Other Tenants Living in Unipol Properties

In larger buildings the communal areas are being maintained and serviced as normal.

In order to assist our contractors and staff, some non-essential repairs are being restricted and there are supply delays of certain materials that might make resolution of a problem take longer. Every attempt will be made to undertake repairs where deficiencies affect the material comfort of a tenant.

Washing Machines Repairs and Washing Clothes

The contractor Unipol uses to repair washing machines is currently using only restricted numbers of staff to provide a service and so response times have extended. When a repair operative attends social distance must be maintained at all times. We suggest handwashing clothes if you do not have access to a washing machine for a period of time.

Advice on how to wash clothes and kill germs can be found here

External Maintenance and Repairs

As these do not require access to a property or flats work is continuing.

Property Inspections

We will now inspect all properties once they are empty and they will be cleaned and serviced before new tenants occupy the property. Where properties have been emptied Unipol will undertake some early inspecting and cleaning.

The following arrangements remain in place:

Mill Street

The reception hours have been reduced to 5pm - 8pm Monday to Friday. Perspex screens have been installed at the reception to improve safety for staff. Social distancing should take place at the reception counter.

We can no longer can accept parcels at reception. Tenants must make arrangements to be present to receive deliveries themselves.

The free tea/coffee/hot chocolate facilities remain suspended.

The music practice rooms will remain in use. Each room has a pack of anti-bacterial wipes in them and users should wipe down the keyboards in those rooms before and after use and wipe the door handles on leaving.

The gym is closed

The drop bag breakfast available on Monday morning has been ended.

There have been issues with tenants not maintaining social distancing in the area used by some for smoking outside the main entrance - please maintain social distancing at all times.

Royal Park Flats

The free tea/coffee/hot chocolate facilities have been suspended.

The printer facility will remain. The lounge should only be used by a limited number of students maintaining social distancing.

Grayson Heights

Contains shared students and families with children. We are not aware of any high risk groups living in Grayson Heights but those with children should minimise contact of their children with postgraduate tenants - this is not being unfriendly, just sensible as children are a low risk group but can act to spread the virus.

Perspex screens have been installed at the reception to improve safety for staff. Social distancing should take place at the reception counter.

Dyers Court

Dyers Court has seven elderly residents who are at serious risk if they contract the virus. Those with children must stop the contact of their children with elderly residents - this is not being unfriendly, just sensible as children are a low risk group but can act to spread the virus.

Unipol has contacted each elderly resident to offer further support in getting food and provisions. Those living in Dyers Court may also care to offer help to your elderly neighbour whilst taking precautions to maintain social distance.

Woodsley Terrace

Is undergoing a rolling refurbishment with bathrooms being refitted over a 12 month period. Shortage of materials meant that there was a pause in the sequencing of the works but works have now commenced again. Builders will maintain social distancing and the works should only affect a single flat. Those living nearby will be informed before works start.

Socials and Family Social Programme

Because of the need to maintain social distancing the programme remains suspended.

Stay Well, Stay Home

Unipol has launched an online social programme which is running from April to June 2020. As part of Stay Well, Stay Home programme Unipol is releasing weekly videos, especially for Unipol tenants, to help you look after your overall well-being during the coronavirus outbreak.

There are a number of activities that will take place once a week for four weeks:

  • Yoga sessions
  • Dance Classes
  • Cooking Demonstrations from Local Chefs
  • Keeping Well - a weekly talk from professional
  • Fitness Program including 2 work outs from home and 1 HIIT class.

These videos will be added to the Unipol YouTube channel.

You can also subscribe to this channel so you don’t miss any!

Blogs and useful information can be seen on blog.unipol.org.uk dealing with:

  • Mental Health and Wellbeing during the Coronavirus Outbreak
  • Building a healthy immune system during isolation
  • Keeping your mind and body active
  • Things you can do when self-isolating with kids
  • Volunteering from home.

Contracts and Rent Payments 2019-2020 Support

Rent is due as normal within contracted periods. People pay rent across the contracted period whether they are present or not, which is why rent is charged across Christmas, Easter and in some cases summer when some students are not present. In reality, as Unipol is a student housing charity it only uses its properties for students and so your rent is effectively set to cover the annual cost of your house/flat.

If you are having problems paying your rent because you, or you family, have seen your income fall or because work-related income has stopped, then you can talk to our finance staff about how to pay the rent and we can arrange payment by instalments or by special arrangement.

A number of rent refunds have been made to tenants. The amounts vary depending on the type of accommodation occupied. In all cases your Unipol tenancy continues to run until its termination date.

Refunds were offered to Leeds Beckett University and University of Leeds tenants at Mill Street, Carlton Hill, Royal Park Flats and Grayson Heights. The cost of this was met by both of those institutions and Unipol was grateful for that.

Leeds College of Music and Leeds Arts University students living at Mill Street and Carlton Hill had access to a Rental Support Fund and that assistance scheme has now ended.

Tenants Living in Unipol’s Leased or Owned Shared Houses and Flats received a rent refund of 50% off the following rents:

  • off-street shared student houses (leased and owned)
  • shared student flats at Alexander Court and New York Buildings
  • Unipol let rooms at Mill Street and Carlton Hill.
  • shared student flats at Doris Birdsall Hall.

This 50% reduction was made whether tenants were staying or going.

Most tenants have now paid any outstanding rent owed and Unipol would like to thank them for that. The terms of the Unipol rent refunds were that tenants needed to pay any outstanding rent not later than 30th June 2020 (instalment plans can be individually discussed for those in difficulties). If tenants have not paid (or made an arrangement to pay) their outstanding rent due then they would become liable for the full amount.

Tenants Living in Properties Managed for Private Owners were subject to the wishes of the owners of these properties. Unipol wrote to the owners of the properties we manage and asked them to mirror the offer Unipol made to tenants in its own and leased properties. We stressed at the time that this was entirely a matter for them and we would have to abide by their decisions.

65% of our managed tenants received an offer from a managed landlord reducing their rent by the requested 50% (in line with the paragraph above on Tenants Living in Unipol’s Leased or Owned Shared Houses and Flats). We thank these managed owners (most of whom have only one or two houses) for their help and consideration in reaching these decisions which will have meant a significant personal reduction in their income. Other help and rent reductions were offered by all except a small minority of managed landlords.

Where no offer was made to students, a number of owners have said they will consider the circumstances of tenants on an individual basis if they got in touch. The students in these properties have been advised of this. Unipol also asked that any exceptional circumstances be conveyed to them to see whether, under our Management Agreement, we could release exceptional cases from their tenancy. The deadline for those representations has now passed.

We thank RedOak, the owner, for their help in the offer made to tenants living in the Student Hideout in Nottingham, and we also thank Garden House Developments Ltd, the owner, for their help in the offer made to tenants living in Garden House in Leeds.

Recruitment

Unipol are recruiting staff to cover both full time staff posts, summer temporary posts and part time post for Resident’s Assistants next year. We will continue to interview for these posts and interviews can be undertaken by Zoom or Skype.

Homestay

Unipol works in partnership with the University of Leeds to run the Homestay service designed to place students in local households to improve language development in an immersive environment. The Homestay service is now suspended.

Unipol Training and Conferences

All conferences have been moved to the next academic year and the rescheduled dates will be made available soon. Delegates can either carry over their bookings or get a refund.

National Codes and Leeds and Nottingham Codes

Advice and an updated summary of developments can be found on the National Codes website. The National Code verification programme is now back up and running, albeit in a modified form. Leeds Nottingham Code inspections have been suspended unless there is a very urgent matter to attend to, mirroring NCC and LCC’s position on licensing inspections

Governance

Unipol’s governance processes have continued using Zoom.

Conclusion

We know many of our tenants have continued to live in their homes in Leeds and we wish all of our tenants the best of health and hope you are all staying positive and focussed on your education. If we can be of any help just get in contact.

Remember, you can contact us by Web Chat and email which are probably the most efficient ways of communicating.