Back in March, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said that no renter should lose their home because of coronavirus. This was hugely welcome. However, four months on, Jenrick has failed to deliver on his promise to protect renters, and parliament is on its summer break. The current evictions suspension ends on 23 August, and the country’s 11 million private renters have been let down.
The government has argued it’s taken enough steps to help those renters who will be at risk of eviction because of the effect of coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s important to recognise that the government has taken action – some of it unprecedented. But that help is about to end, and due to both the scale of the crisis caused by COVID-19 and just how broken the private rented sector was to start with, private renters are left in an extremely vulnerable position. In particular, the vital, emergency measure of suspending all possession proceedings for 90 days kept people in their homes at the height of the pandemic – and this was extremely welcome. But suspending evictions is not the same as dealing with the problem – which the government has failed to do.
In this blog, we’ll set out what government has done, and why it just isn’t good enough.
Benefits won’t cover the rent
Even in the early days of the crisis, it was clear that the impact on the economy – and people’s personal finances – was going to be huge. Our services help people every day who are struggling to make ends meet, and whose welfare payments, along with their income, does not meet the cost of rent. We had been calling for housing benefit for private renters (LHA) to be restored to the 30th percentile for years, so that it would once again cover the cheapest third of local market rents. So, while it was a relief to see Chancellor Rishi Sunak acknowledge the desperate plight of private renters and make this announcement, it hasn’t been enough to help people through this crisis.
LHA rates needed to be lifted in normal times – but these are anything but. Families who never expected to experience such financial hardship are now living in average-priced homes, and even now that people are more able to move home, with so many more now relying on benefits, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to find anything available among that third of local rentals that are affordable. Huge numbers are now facing shortfalls between the amount of social security they can receive and their actual rent.
Government has to go further by temporarily increasing LHA so that it covers average rents – preventing people from becoming homeless and putting unbearable pressure on the lower end of the housing market. It also has to remove the benefit cap – which pushes renters in to poverty.
Eviction notices… plus one month
With many temporarily unable to pay the rent, and everyone needing to keep safe from the pandemic, the government rightly recognised the need to temporarily suspend evictions. Jenrick’s initial plan to prevent renters from being evicted wasn’t to ban eviction notices being served…. but simply to increase the notice period from two months to three. The idea, in theory, was that someone served a notice at the beginning of April wouldn’t need to leave until the beginning of July.
However, we know that when a landlord serves an eviction notice, most renters instantly start looking for a new place to live. This is understandable; people want time to find somewhere suitable and affordable, and knowing that you’re soon to be kicked out weighs heavily on renters. This meant that, despite Jenrick’s best intentions, people were moving out of their homes when the government direction was clear: ‘stay home to save lives’.
Indeed, our research showed that 58,000 renters moved between mid-March and early June because their landlord told them to. This was in spite of the evictions ban, which stopped evictions through the courts – but didn’t stop landlords from serving notice on their tenants.
Rules don’t trump the law
When Jenrick announced the extension of the evictions ban for a futher two months, he pointed to a new committee set up by the Master of the Rolls, bringing together the advice, legal and landlord sector. MHCLG said that the aim of this group was to ensure that ‘judges have all the information necessary to make just decisions and that the most vulnerable tenants can get the help they need’.
While the work of this group has been successful, it has never been within its remit to protect renters by changing the law. As government well knows, laws are changed by the government – the judiciary finds ways to enforce them. Last Friday, new court rules were approved that will see changes in how cases are managed once evictions restart in August. If you are being evicted because of coronavirus – for example, because you lost your job and income – your landlord must note on your case file that that is the case.
But here’s the catch: current housing law dictates that a judge has no choice but to evict you if you’re being evicted via a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction notice or under ground 8, Section 8 of the Housing Act 1988. So, while these rules will be helpful for those renters being evicted under discretionary grounds, for most private renters, they do absolutely nothing. As a result, renters who experience a short-term drop in income or temporary job loss risk losing their home before they can get back on their feet.
For the government to claim otherwise is simply wrong. In order to truly protect renters, government has to legislate to amend Section 21 and Section 8 as soon as they return from recess – before turning its attention to bringing forward the Renters’ Reform Bill. This will allow them to provide more security for private renters, so that next time a crisis hits, families are more protected from losing their home and have the space to get back on their feet.