An estimated nearly 20,000 households across England have been made legally homeless during the coronavirus pandemic despite a nationwide ban on evictions, according to data compiled by the New Statesman.
Freedom of Information responses from 212 councils across England show 22,798 households who applied for support after 1 April this year were found to be legally homeless.
As these figures only cover around two-thirds of English local authorities, the true England-wide total is estimated to reach around 33,000 homeless households during the pandemic. (One in three local authorities did not respond to the FOI request or did not provide usable data, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield and a third of London boroughs.)
If we exclude the 15,000 existing homeless households housed under the government’s programme to help rough sleepers off the streets from the estimated 33,000 figure, that leaves approximately 18,000 households found to be homeless since the start of April.
“Covid-19 has heightened the impact of the housing emergency – from people sleeping rough, to families living in grim temporary accommodation, to renters facing mounting arrears after losing their jobs. Meanwhile, councils are buckling under the pressure of the number of people who need help,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of the homelessness charity Shelter.
“The end of the ban on evictions is less than a week away, so the government’s first action after recess must be to give judges new powers to ensure no renter loses their home because of Covid-19. And if they are serious about ending homelessness for good, the government must invest in the new generation of genuinely affordable social homes that we need now more than ever.”
People who are legally homeless are not necessarily rough sleepers – although there has been a spike in rough sleeping in London since March. Legally homeless people can include those in short-term accommodation, evicted tenants and lodgers and victims of domestic abuse.
While the government has suspended legal eviction proceedings during the pandemic, some tenants evicted by their landlord may have left without knowing their rights, while lodgers and those living with friends or family were not covered by the evictions ban.
Of the councils providing data, Manchester recorded the highest number of newly homeless people since April, with 858 households assessed as legally homeless.
Tenants’ rights group Acorn has been challenging evictions and pressing for rent cuts during the pandemic.
Iris Breward, of Acorn’s Manchester branch, tells the New Statesman: “The government are not doing enough to protect renters, and they have clearly ignored the precarious situation that many renters have faced during coronavirus. Their measures have not gone far enough to ensure that people are not made homeless during a pandemic, and as a result hundreds of families in Manchester alone no longer have somewhere to live.”
Job losses and reduced hours mean people cannot afford to pay their rent, she says, adding: “Even the furlough scheme expects people to be able to manage with a significantly reduced income.
“During the pandemic, landlords should have been made more accountable and regulated closely to ensure they weren’t making people homeless.
“As it stands, there seems to have been the expectation that profits from renting to tenants would continue regardless of the current crisis, whereas tenants have been expected to continue to pay full rent despite the financial struggles that many are facing.”
In Nottingham, 518 households have been assessed as being legally homeless since April.
Linda Woodings, Nottingham City Council’s housing lead, says: “We have seen no reduction in demand during the Covid lockdown period. Indeed, there was probably more pressure put on us during lockdown because of ‘sofa-surfers’ being asked to leave properties, other households unable to provide the respite support they had previously, more single people presenting as homeless, and then perhaps slightly more relationship-breakdown situations post-lockdown than usual.”
She adds: “This is in addition to the national hidden homelessness caused by restrictions on housebuilding and an inadequate government response to requests for a relaxation of right-to-buy, which greatly limits housing stock for councils. We also know that Nottingham’s managing and letting agents are reporting a four-fold increase in the number of enquiries for each private-rented property post-lockdown.”
Campaigners and local government leaders fear the lifting of the ban on evictions proceedings later this month. While the backlog and duration of court proceedings may draw out the impact over a longer period of time, the number of evictions and consequent homelessness is expected to rise markedly, particularly once the furlough scheme ends and unemployment rises further. Despite an increase in March, housing benefits still do not cover the average rent in each area.
David Renard, housing spokesman for the Local Government Association, says: “We have serious concerns about the potential risk of homelessness some private renters face once the current measures to protect tenants from eviction ends.
“To give further reassurance and protection to private tenants, the government should bring forward its pledge to end ‘no fault evictions’, which would help reduce the number of people evicted, and commit to maintaining local housing allowance rates at the lowest third of market rents, so that tenants have greater security and households can meet their housing costs.”
The government has provided councils with increased Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) that can be used to support people struggling with housing costs. So far this financial year, £30m of DHPs have been given out by the 200 or so councils that provided figures to the New Statesman.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The government has taken unprecedented action to support vulnerable people, including rough sleepers, with nearly 15,000 housed in emergency accommodation since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We’ve also ensured no tenants have been forced from their home at the height of Covid-19. We will provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when court proceedings start again, including the requirement for landlords to provide more information about their tenants’ situation when seeking an eviction, with judges able to adjourn a case if this information isn’t provided.”
Chaminda Jayanetti is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian, the Observer and Private Eye