The clock is ticking: government must act now to protect renters

The clock is ticking: government must act now to protect renters

There are now less than five weeks to go before the government’s eviction ban ends. With the deadline looming, millions of private renters need the reassurance that they will not be at risk of losing their home when it is lifted.

But there is hope. We have a clear and workable plan to protect renters from eviction during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – and today the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee endorsed this plan.

The committee, a group of cross-party MPs who scrutinise government housing policy, called on the government to amend the Housing Act to protect renters. Their report will be presented to government, which will be expected to respond over the coming weeks.

What should happen when the eviction ban ends?

Eight weeks ago, the government ordered businesses to shut and asked people to stay at home. As a result, eight million jobs have been furloughed, two million claims have been made to the Self-Employment Income Support scheme and there has been 2.6 million new claims for Universal Credit. But when the eviction ban is lifted on 25 June, many of these people could face the prospect of being evicted from their homes in the middle of a pandemic.

There are two ways a landlord can evict their tenant under the Housing Act: through a section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction or through section 8, where a specific reason must be given for the eviction.

Under section 8, if a landlord tries to evict their tenant and it goes to court, the judge must grant a possession order if the court is satisfied the tenant has built up eight weeks rent arrears. But we want to allow judges to take the life-changing impact of COVID-19 into account when making their decisions – and there’s a simple way to do that.

How we can amend section 8

By disapplying ground 8 within section 8, all rent arrears grounds would by default be discretionary. Judges would be able to consider if any rent arrears were accrued because of job loss, a drop in working hours or benefit delays.

This would give tenants some leeway given the inevitable ongoing impact of the crisis and the likely recession to follow.

What about section 21?

Section 21 should be scrapped in the long-term to give more protection to new tenants, but right now it needs to be amended to protect existing renters. The government have introduced a pre-action protocol to try to encourage landlords to work with their tenants to create a repayment plan for any arrears. However, without changes to section 21, it is meaningless.

Changes to section 21 could hold landlords who do not follow the pre-action protocol to account. These changes would prevent judges having to grant a possession order where it is unjust to do so due to coronavirus. For example, if a tenant had been served with a section 21 ‘no-fault’ notice because they had accrued arrears following a job loss caused by the pandemic, and the landlord had not been willing to agree to a reasonable repayment plan under the pre-action protocol, a judge could refuse to grant a possession order.

This is exactly what the HCLG Committee has recommended to government do. They have even proposed a draft bill for the government to take forward making it as easy as possible for them to make these changes.

Can we prevent people accruing rent arrears in the first place?

The committee has recognised the vital role our social security safety net continues to play. It has recommended that Local Housing Allowance (LHA) – housing benefit for private renters – continues to cover the bottom 30% of each local rental market (30th percentile) in the long-term.

This is desperately needed; alongside the removal the benefit cap to allow people to afford their rent going forward. Together these measures will help people to cover their rent and avoid eviction during the pandemic and the emerging economic crisis.

LHA currently only covers 3 in 10 homes in every market meaning many living in average price homes will still be unable to cover average rents while they can’t work. The committee acknowledged this by urging the government to monitor the levels of shortfalls people are experiencing and to be willing to invest more money in housing benefit.

We can’t let families accrue further debt while waiting for the government to decide what it should do. LHA should be restored immediately to cover average rents to prevent the problem at source.

How to help those without suitable accommodation

The committee’s report highlights the need for further action to be taken for people who were sleeping rough and provided with emergency hotel accommodation at the start of this pandemic. The committee rightly calls this a ‘golden opportunity to ensure every single person taken from the streets does not return to rough sleeping’. They recommend that there be a housing-led solution with appropriate wrap-around support with councils provided with enough financial support to procure this.

This is very welcome. Sufficient funding for accommodation and support needs is absolutely essential for those already in the emergency hotels.

But not everyone at risk off rough sleeping has been accommodated in hotels and more and more people are ending up on the street each day. The government’s initial request to councils to ensure rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people are supported into appropriate accommodation has caused confusion about who they should be accommodating.

We have asked the government to provide clear guidance on who is entitled to this emergency accommodation for the duration of the pandemic. It should make clear that anyone with nowhere safe to stay should be regarded as priority need for emergency accommodation on public health grounds, and those not eligible under homelessness legislation because of immigration status should be accommodated under the Localism Act.

Finally, there are also thousands of families who are currently having to endure this lockdown in wholly unsuitable temporary accommodation. In some cases, families are accommodated in rooms no bigger than a parking space, either with cooking facilities in the room and a tiny en suite, or with communal kitchens and bathrooms shared with a number of other households. It’s quite common for families to have to share beds.

Not only does this create a hotbed for the spread of coronavirus among families, but, with children off school for long periods, it means they are living in an intolerable environment. There has been no guidance from government on how councils should be helping families who cannot follow public health advice in their current accommodation.

We cannot forget about these families who were already suffering long before the pandemic but for whom the pandemic has severely exacerbated their situation.

To help prevent anyone losing their home during the pandemic we need you to email Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, to ask him to step in and protect renters before they lose their homes.