With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases now reaching over 55,242 in the UK, government sanctioned lockdown remains in place. Thousands of businesses across the country are still non-functional and millions of people are out of work, struggling to pay rent.
In response to the crisis, the government announced emergency legislation to safeguard renters. This placed a suspension on the eviction of those in private and social rented housing.
However, there have been significant criticisms that the government has not gone far enough to protect renters. Many are now calling for rent suspensions in order to prevent the accumulation of unsustainable debt for those unable to pay their rent.
The emergency legislation outlines that from 26 March 2020, landlords are banned from issuing eviction notices to tenants for a 3 month period.
Speaking about the changes, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “No renter who has lost income due to Coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.” The latter refers to landlords being able to apply to their mortgage lender for a repayment holiday, if they are struggling due to COVID-19. In addition, courts have been told to “suspend all ongoing housing possession action”.
While no rent suspensions have been put in place, the government says that increases to Housing Benefit and Universal Credit, as well as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will help keep renters afloat. However, many remain doubtful that these measures will provide them with the support they need.
Speaking to the NewStatesman in March, an MHCLG spokesperson said: “As soon as legislation is passed, no new possession proceedings will begin – in either the social sector or the private rented sector – for at least the next three months. We have the power to extend this notice period if necessary.”
The measures have understandably been called ‘watered down’. Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey, for example, has agreed, saying that legislation: “Just gives [tenants] some extra time to pack their bags”.
In response, MHCLG has said that accusations the government was ‘rowing back’ on promises were ‘nonsense’. However, the bill’s explanatory notes outline that landlords are still permitted to serve a ‘notice of intention to possess’. Tenants are also still liable for rental payments.
Subsequently, the legislation appears to postpone evictions, rather than ‘ban’ them by suspending the start of court proceedings. Considering that in the UK a third of renters have no savings, with a fifth only having enough money for two or three rent payments, this new policy is certainly worrying.
The National Union of Students has also highlighted that the legislation doesn’t clarify its position on student housing. Many students have had to leave their digs due to COVID-19 and subsequent university closures. Despite this, they are still being forced to continue rent payments for houses they can’t live in.
Jon Sparkes, CEO of Crisis, has said that the legislation simply: “Does not go far enough”. Chief Executive of Shelter Polly Neate, agreed, adding that the legislation does not protect people against homelessness: “Eviction notices will continue to land on renters’ doormats.”
Contrastingly, Ben Beadle, Chief Executive of the National Residential Landlords Association said that: “No responsible landlord will be considering evicting tenants because of difficulties arising from the current situation.” However, without a blanket ban, the legislation provides no guarantee.
Further to the government’s measures, the Labour Party have insisted that the 3 month period should be extended to 6 months. The party also urged that this should be accompanied by a suspension of all rent payments for those who are struggling, with legislated and manageable pay-back periods to ease debt accumulation by tenants.
Many unions agree with Labour’s recommendations including The London Renter’s Union who have called for a universal suspension on rent, to enable tenants to self isolate without fear of eviction and debt.
The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) have argued that the legislation lacks clarity. It has said that while ‘rent holidays’ are a sensible response to the COVID-19 crisis: “This is not a green light to tenants everywhere to stop paying their rent.”
Meanwhile, although the government has said that it is increasing Local Housing Allowance (LHA) to cover the cheapest 30% of rented homes, Charities like Shelter say this is not enough. Polly Neate said: “At Shelter we’re receiving daily calls from people up and down the country who are worried about how they’ll pay the rent, keep the lights on and put food in the fridge in the coming weeks and months.
“That’s why we’re urging the government to go even further on its welfare measures to help people through the financial shock created by this pandemic.
“To prevent households slipping into poverty and debt, the government should temporarily increase housing benefits so that it covers the average cost of local rents.
“And to make sure help is available from day one it must end the five-week wait for universal credit, by turning advance payments into a grant instead of a loan.”
Subsequently, many still fear the fallout of the crisis and don’t feel like their homes are protected. It seems that although Boris Johnson has said the government is ‘putting its arms’ around the country, these measures keep it at arms length.