The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shone a light through the cracks of our broken private renting system.
As we fight a public health crisis on top of the existing housing crisis, many renters have been told to stay home in properties which are unsafe, mouldy or overcrowded.
Renters have faced job losses while still having to pay rent and bills, leaving hundreds of thousands feeling stretched and scared for their futures.
The government has introduced a number of temporary measures aimed at keeping renters safe, but these measures can only go so far. They won’t last forever. And, the government has long recognised that private renting is not fit for purpose. Before the pandemic hit, it promised us a Renters’ Reform Bill. Now, more than ever, it is vital that the government brings forward this bill and protects renters for good.
We’ll share a series of blogs that present our ideas about how to fix the broken private rented sector. Let’s start with a look back at how the private rented sector has weathered the pandemic and why it’s time to demand better from renting.
The eviction ban: A sticking plaster for a growing crisis
Just days after the first national lockdown was imposed in March 2020, the government announced a complete ban on evictions until June 25 2020. This protected tens of thousands of renters who would have faced homelessness while potentially trying to isolate or protect themselves from the virus. It was extended on June 5, and then again until September 20.
But it didn’t stop renters losing jobs, racking up rent arrears, and living with the knowledge that they could be evicted at any point once protections are lifted. The huge increase in people applying for benefit support reflects this. In under two months (16 March – 12 May), there were 2.6 million new applications for Universal Credit.
Even with this unprecedented level of financial support, many renters faced or are facing massive shortfalls in their housing costs. A total of 322,000 adult private renters (4%) who were not in arrears prior to the pandemic have since fallen behind on their rent.[i] Life as a renter has become even more precarious and insecure.
The eviction ban is a sticking plaster on a growing crisis. Thousands of concerned renters facing homelessness are still contacting our frontline services.
Six-month notice periods are not the long-term answer
In August 2020, the government announced that most private renters have a six-month notice period. But in ‘normal’ times, private renters get just two months’ notice under a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction notice. And even then, two months is a short time to find a new home and the money required to move.
Renters may have a home, but many are all too familiar with the feeling that home is temporary. It’s home until the next section 21 notice arrives, which is especially unsettling in a time like this. Each time that happens, we end up a little bit less well-off…. We lose some of our deposit, we pay moving fees, and our options become more limited.
These longer notice periods have provided us with much-welcomed breathing space, but it’s time to tackle the reasons that breathing space is so necessary. The pandemic showed just how desperate renters are for security and stability, which is exactly why we must scrap section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions.
Millions live at the mercy of a rental system that is notoriously unstable, expensive, and where complaining can cost you your home.
The human impact of the pandemic on renters
The stress of struggling in sub-standard homes and the constant threat of eviction, on top of a pandemic, has had a concerning impact on renters and their lives. Our research finds that private renters are also almost twice as likely to feel more depressed and anxious about their housing situation in light of the pandemic (47%), compared with the general public (26%).
Just in the last month:
- 24% of private renters have had to borrow money to pay their rent
- 18% have cut back on food or skipped meals to pay their rent
- 12% have cut back on heating their home to pay their rent
It’s not surprising, given that a quarter of private renters (two million people) have seen their income decrease in the last six months.
Coronavirus private renting timeline
March 23: First UK lockdown
March 27: Complete ban on evictions until June 25 in coronavirus law
June 5: Ban extended until August 23
August 21: Ban extended until September 20
August 28: Government changes the law so most renters have a six-month notice period
September 20: Eviction ban is lifted. Possession hearings begin again
December 11 : Government’s Christmas ‘truce’ on eviction enforcement for renters in England and Wales begins. Bailiffs can’t evict tenants until January 11
Jan 4: National lockdown
14 Feb: The bailiff ban is extended until March 31
11 March: The bailiff ban and six-month notice periods are extended until May 31
The Renters’ Reform Bill must be next on the agenda
When a system needs this many short-term measures to protect so many people from homelessness, it clearly has fundamental structural issues.
The government promised to bring forward the Renters’ Reform Bill in December 2019, but the pandemic has thrown everything off course. Now is the government’s shot at making renting fit for purpose, so we are never again in a position where so many are left so vulnerable.
Together, we can ask that Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick scraps unfair evictions and introduces a national register of landlords and letting agents. This could mean every renter can have a stable decent home, and somewhere to go if something goes wrong.
It is time to bring forward the Renters’ Reform Bill and demand better from renting.
What’s wrong with private renting?
From ‘Renters at risk – Getting through the coronavirus crisis’, September 2020, by Jenny Pennington and Stephanie Kleynhans.
Private renting is precarious. While the sector has doubled in size in twenty years, regulation has not kept up. You can be served a Section 21 ‘no-fault’ eviction notice at almost any time, and this makes it hard to exercise our consumer rights, due to not reporting repairs for fear of being turfed out.
Many renters feel like they have to put up with poor quality, shoddy housing and dangerous, overcrowded conditions because they can’t afford to leave and are scared of being evicted or being made homeless. In addition to the threat of eviction, private renters battle with inadequate regulation and too few ways of enforcing the regulation that does exist.
Private renting is also expensive. Rents are not tied to incomes, which leaves private renters spending more on their housing costs than those in any other type of housing.
[i] YouGov survey of 3,698 England 18+ including 598 private renters in England, online, weighted to England adults, fieldwork 17 August to 19 August 2020