THOUSANDS of pounds worth of cash has been held back from students in South Belfast by landlords refusing to return deposits on rented accommodation, it has been claimed.

As students return to the area in droves for the new academic term and fill accommodation in the Holyland, Stranmillis and the Lisburn Road, many will be doing so having been forced to fork out fresh cash for deposits after landlords refused to hand over deposits from the previous term, says Queen’s Student Union.

Vice President for Welfare Joanne O’Neill said the problem was becoming increasingly common but said new legislation would hopefully make it more difficult for some landlords to rip-off hard-up students.

“We have become more aware of the problem and I personally have been dealing with more complaints from students who have been told they aren’t getting their deposit back for all sorts of reasons,” she said.

“For a lot of students, they feel it’s not worth their while to pursue the money they are owed. When they hear the words ‘small claims court’ they often just forget about it and pay new money for a new deposit.

“The majority unfortunately just accept that deposits will be lost, even though the properties they are leaving are in as good a shape as when they moved in. Some students are getting around this by not paying the last month’s rent before leaving, and telling the landlord that the deposit will cover this, but now landlords are starting to charge a month and a half’s rent in response.

“Stormont is due to introduce tenancy deposit schemes which will hopefully protect students and landlords both, to make sure people are getting their money back when they are owed it. We are looking forward to this preventing disputes that can leave young people and their families severely out of pocket.”

Declan Boyle, from the Landlord’s Association of NI said some property owners holding back deposits for dubious reasons were making it difficult for landlords whose tenants had actually caused damage.

“It does happen in some cases, but the vast majority of landlords will not do that, and in fact anyone who does is causing problems for landlords who have a genuine right to hold onto part or all of a deposit due to damage,” he said.

“We would strongly advise tenants to keep an inventory of the property, and sign it with the landlord at the start of term. It’s also advisable to video record the property with a mobile phone to show its state at the time of moving in.

“There’s no doubt that some landlords are justified in holding deposits when there is damage. The most extreme case I ever saw was when an entire wall inside the house was gone – the students had ripped it apart, plasterboard and all, but thankfully this is a very small minority.”

Describing the future tenancy deposit schemes, a Department for Social Development spokesperson said: “Approved schemes will include arrangements to resolve disputes arising in connection with deposits paid. This will create a more professional approach to tenancy deposit protection and will reduce the number of disputes.”