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19 March 2020

The plight of renters during coronavirus is the best argument yet for Universal Basic Income

The longer the problem is examined, the stronger the case becomes for simply giving people money. 

By Jonn Elledge

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown up many questions. Is it possible to limit the spread of the virus without completely changing our way of life? Can industries such as hospitality, which are dependent on face-to-face contact, possibly survive the next few months? Will we ever be able to talk about anything else, ever again? Are we all going to die? Not all of these questions currently have answers  or at least, answers that anybody is particularly comfortable thinking about.

One question that the internet does feel comfortable answering, however, is why the government seems so much more concerned for the welfare of homeowners than that of renters. On 17 March, as part of a £330bn strategy to stop the economy from falling over because nobody can go to work or buy anything, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised that lenders would offer “at least” a three-month mortgage holiday to anyone whose income was affected by the virus. Renters have not, so far, been offered a three-month holiday. Conclusion: the Tory party will bend over backwards for homeowners or landlords, but hates renters – or, possibly, has forgotten that they exist.

There’s probably some truth to this. Homeowners tend to be richer than renters, which is generally the sort of thing that makes the Conservative Party feel well disposed towards someone, and the latter group have an annoying tendency to vote Labour. Large chunks of the Tory parliamentary party, including, irritatingly, the Housing Secretary, own more than one house. And let’s be honest: the last decade of government housing policy has not exactly undermined the long-standing suspicion that Tories believe tenants to occupy a point on the class ladder at least a rung and a half below cockroaches, has it?

Even so, I think there’s a less sinister explanation for all this. Helping renters is, relatively speaking, difficult. Mortgage holidays, after all, are something that already exist: borrowers can forego a couple of payments now and pay them back later. Lenders like this sort of thing, as it’s a lot less effort than actually taking someone’s house away from them and, anyway, they get the money back down the road with interest on top. 

To make this happen, what’s more, Sunak would have only needed sign-off from a few big financial institutions. Even if they weren’t keen, asking them how they’d feel about being named and shamed in the pages of the Daily Mail would probably be enough to convince them. As government interference in private contracts goes, this is easy.

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Working out what buttons to press to help renters is rather harder. You can’t just lean on a couple of dozen banks: there are a frankly incredible 2.5 million landlords in Britain, not all of whom seem particularly concerned about how their behaviour will appear to the general public. Many of these guys will be loaded, of course, but others won’t, which is probably one reason they’re so reluctant to replace that boiler. For some, who purchased buy-to-let property in lieu of a pension, the rent is their income. Whatever the morality of that situation, since Sunak’s goal is to prevent coronavirus from driving people to financial ruin, he’s extremely unlikely to make demanding rent payments illegal.

If the government can’t guarantee a rent holiday, could it simply pay the rent? I’m not sure how. There’s no register of who rents or how much they’re paying, and even if for some reason you still had faith in the competence of the Department of Work and Pensions, which nobody does, then a point when the entire planet is on lockdown hardly feels like the moment to create one. So while I’d love to be wrong, I think that one might be too difficult, too. 

Long story short: even if it is ideologically inclined to do so anyway, it’s much, much easier for the government to help mortgage borrowers than renters. And so, while the former are being promised tangible financial support, all the latter have received is a promise that landlords will be unable to evict them for at least three months. That’s a step forwards – but deferring the consequences of non-payment is not the same as promising that those in trouble won’t have to pay at all.

Two conclusions present themselves from all this. One is that our current housing and welfare systems are catastrophically ill-designed for a crisis like this: we just don’t have the levers to pull to help people. The government’s great sin is not its failure to help people now; it’s allowing so many of them to end up at the mercy of an unregulated private rental sector in the first place

The other is that, the longer I stare at this problem, the stronger the case for just giving people money seems to become. It wouldn’t mean interfering in private contracts. It wouldn’t accidentally miss people, because HMRC already has everyone’s name and bank details on file. And it wouldn’t mean that policies that help one lot of people end up hurting another lot. Best of all, we’d all get some money.

Across the Atlantic, Mitt Romney (not a man known for his socialist leanings) has been making the case for simply handing Americans cash, but the Tories so far seem reluctant to consider such radicalism. Perhaps this is sensible – if the electorate gets a taste for regular infusions of free cash, they could be hard to stop. As ambitious as Rishi Sunak is, I very much doubt he wants to be remembered as the Tory who introduced Universal Basic Income by mistake.