A year ago today, Theresa May’s government made a promise to renters – to abolish section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions for good. We were elated: finally, government had listened to housing campaigners’ calls. This change would finally provide protection for England’s 11 million private renters, who currently live under the constant threat of eviction – even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
Brexit, a change in leadership and a general election all stalled the progress of the mission to level up renting and rebalance the relationship between landlord and tenant. But the Conservatives’ clear manifesto commitment and announcement of the Renters’ Reform Bill in December’s Queen’s Speech put things back in motion.
However, the world we are living in today is not one we predicted or prepared for. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the political and social landscape and we are in the midst of a global emergency. This is not business as usual.
While we know that the Renters’ Reform Bill is unlikely to be published any time soon, the crisis has shown into sharp relief the desperately vulnerable situation that so many renters find themselves in. From living in homes they can’t comfortably afford to being kicked out overnight – we have all read the horror stories that have really driven home just how poorly protected so many people are. We strongly welcomed the government’s action to halt possession proceedings after some pressure from Shelter supporters. This removed the risk of renters being turfed out at a time when government is telling us to stay home.
But if government recognised a need for wholesale reform a year ago, this crisis has shown that renters need increased security more than ever before.
Unable to pay the rent
Too many people living in private rented accommodation are unable to pay the rent. This has been the case for years – Local Housing Allowance (LHA), the housing benefit for private renters, has left low-income renters stuck with the decision to pay the rent or put food on the table. Nearly a decade of cuts and freezes to the rates left almost all of England (97%) unaffordable to families receiving LHA.
So the chancellor’s announcement that he was increasing rates so that LHA claimants would be able to afford at least 30% of the rental market in each local area (the 30th percentile) was welcome – and what we’ve been calling for this for years. In normal times, this would be a reason to celebrate. But millions of people are facing unemployment and moving to cheaper housing simply isn’t an option – particularly at a time when government is telling us to stay at home.
In order to protect private renters and ensure that people can pay the rent government must go further and increase LHA to cover the average cost of renting a home in every area by raising it to the 50th percentile.
At risk of being kicked out
Even with measures to help renters stay up-to-date with rental payments, landlords are still able to serve a no-fault eviction notice at any point during this crisis. While government’s action to suspend proceedings is hugely important, as it stands, renters will be facing a cliff-edge at the end of their three-month notice period and the 90-day suspension of possession proceedings.
The system simply isn’t built to protect renters. If a landlord is evicting a private renter under a no-fault notice, they do not need any justification to do so whatsoever. Regardless of how long government extends the period, unless legislation is amended, private renters will have no defence if their landlord wants to get them out.
Furthermore, those who are being evicted under Ground 8, Section 8 of the Housing Act 1988 (private tenants with arrears or social tenants), cannot rest easy in the knowledge that a judge can be compassionate if their case gets to court. Even if a renter accrued arrears because they lost their job and there were benefit delays, if a landlord seeks possession using a Ground 8 notice, the judge has to grant a possession order.
But government must now turn to what comes at the end of the 90-day period. While we can anticipate a backlog of cases in the courts, there is still a risk that applications for possession will increase. Many of these will be no-fault evictions. Government must turn its attention urgently to the legislative measures that will be required to keep people in their homes.
A wider crisis
Halting eviction proceedings provides genuine reassurance for most of England’s 20 million private and social renters. But there are some people who do not benefit from these changes, and this crisis has thrown into stark relief those who live in extremely precarious situations.
The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 states who is owed a court order to be evicted and who isn’t. Lots of groups lose out here. Lodgers are only owed reasonable notice – which can be as little as a week. Our services have been supporting NHS workers who have been chucked out by their live-in landlords – forcing vital key workers to take time off work to find somewhere new to live.
Homeless households living in interim accommodation – like hotels – can also be evicted with no protections whatsoever. For as long as these groups have no legal rights, people will be unable to ‘stay home’. When things return to ‘normal’, government must think about how to ensure that everyone has a safe and secure and affordable place to call home.
A year ago, we were hopeful that renters would be feeling more secure today than they were then. Sadly, we’re in an even less stable situation than we were then. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted lots of holes in our social fabric – and government needs to be taking urgent action to prevent the cliff-edge we will be facing at the end of the 90-day period.
But we also need to look ahead to what comes next, and what government needs to do to protect renters in the future – whose crippling insecurity has been revealed. Renters still need the long-term solution that they were promised – and that means no-fault evictions have to go as soon as parliament is back in action.