We were greeted on 31 October by the now all-too-familiar sight of the prime minister addressing the nation, ready to impose further lockdown restrictions.
This news has left many renters worried about how they’ll pay their rent to avoid arrears, eviction, and homelessness. For those already homeless – especially people living on, or at risk of living on the streets – the resurgence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) coinciding with cold, wet winter weather creates a double-threat to health.
This needs urgent attention.
The government must ban evictions during this second lockdown
The first lockdown saw swift action on banning evictions, ensuring renters could stay safe in their home while uncertainty loomed outside. Since the ban was lifted in September, we have seen welcome restrictions on the issuing and execution of bailiff warrants in Tier 2 and Tier 3 lockdown areas. This has prevented evictions taking place in those areas.
Now the whole of England is moving into a second national lockdown, we need confirmation of a country-wide eviction ban to ensure that no one is evicted when the government instruction is to stay home. At the bare minimum, the government must reassure renters that no-one will be evicted by the bailiffs. This will mean that renters can stay in their homes for as long as the lockdown is in place.
Everyone who needs it must be entitled to safe emergency accommodation
If the government is serious about preventing people from contracting and spreading the virus, it must act once again to protect those who sleep rough.
The government’s ‘Everyone In’ approach during the first national lockdown undoubtedly meant that thousands who would otherwise have had to endure the pandemic on the streets were accommodated. However, we were approached by people who were turned away by local authorities because they had no legal rights to accommodation – or were told they had to bed down on the street at night to be ‘verified’ as a rough sleeper, when they were too frightened to do so.
This time around, clear guidance must be issued to councils – directing them to provide everyone who needs it with safe emergency accommodation, wherein they can follow public health advice. We cannot afford to leave anyone out on the streets this winter. The combination of a worsening public health crisis, the cold and wet weather, and a reduction in available night-shelter beds and daycentre services because of restrictions will leave lives at risk.
We must strengthen the welfare safety net
To ensure private renters and people facing the streets can stay safe this winter, the government must strengthen the welfare safety net. The gaps in the welfare safety net are widening and preventing private renters from being able to cover their rents, as well as hindering councils from being able to accommodate people who sleep rough.
Housing benefit for private renters, or Local Housing Allowance (LHA), was restored in March – so it now covers three out of every ten homes (30% of local rents) in each area. This was very welcome and made a big difference to many struggling families across the country. But the proportions of households who are claiming housing benefit are on the rise, with four in ten (39%) private renters now claiming housing benefit across the country. Some will have no choice but to rent homes at higher rents, which LHA won’t cover. For those already paying higher rents, who are unable to work during the lockdown, again the LHA won’t cover it – leading to arrears. Therefore, we urge the government to review LHA rates to ensure they are enough to cover the rents of all those who need it – and at the very least, ensure they are kept at the 30th percentile.
And even if LHA rates would in theory cover their rent, many people losing work are finding themselves in trouble because of the benefit cap. It was introduced to prevent families working for fewer than 16 hours a week from receiving more than £20,000 per year in total benefits outside of London, and £23,000 inside London. It has left hundreds of thousands of households unable to cover their rent and access the emergency payments the government introduced to help families stay afloat during the lockdown. Many are single-parent households, including those who have fled domestic abuse.
The benefit cap is even lower for single people, including most street homeless people. This often prevents councils from being able to find affordable move-on accommodation for people who were helped into emergency accommodation for the first lockdown.
With lockdown leaving many people unable to find work for more than 16 hours a week, and single parents struggling to access childcare for children suddenly told to self-isolate from school, we must lift the benefit cap as a matter of urgency. This would allow families to cover their rents without having to cut back on heating or food and would allow councils to help many more former-rough sleepers into decent, affordable and safe homes.
We already know that over 300,000 private renters accrued arrears during the first lockdown period. This is completely unacceptable. With the country in an unprecedented recession and a challenging winter ahead, the government must help people now to clear these ‘COVID-arrears’ and stay safe in their homes, by providing an emergency financial aid package. We’re working with the National Residential Landlords Association, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, Crisis, Citizens Advice, and Generation Rent to call for emergency grants and loans worth £270 million to help renters at risk now.
We must act now
With coronavirus infection rates rising across the country, weeks of strict local restrictions, and a second national lockdown looming, our advisers are hearing from more and more people worried about being evicted or being made homeless. We must act now to ensure people have somewhere safe to stay during this second national lockdown and over the winter.
Please, add your name to support our call for urgent action.