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25 March 2020

Renters deserve better than this from Boris Johnson

Shadow housing secretary John Healey explains why the government needs to do more to help renters during the coronavirus pandemic.

By John Healey

Renters reassured by Boris Johnson’s promise to protect private renters from eviction will feel badly let down. The government’s amendment to the Coronavirus Bill reveals that the Prime Minister has broken his pledge to the millions of Britons who rent their homes.

The legislation is not an evictions ban, as renters were eventually promised on Wednesday 18 March. In fact, it doesn’t stop people losing their homes at all; it merely gives them a bit longer to pack their bags.

Labour has argued for a ban on evictions to ensure no-one loses their home as a consequence of coronavirus, but the government’s legislation only extends the notice renters are given before they are evicted to three months. For many renters who already get two months’ notice, this legislation amounts to just one more month to prepare to leave their home. It falls way short of the complete ban on” announced by ministers, and means renters will still have repossession notices dropping through their letterbox throughout this period of crisis.

This legislation just doesn’t cut it when people need to know their home is not at risk if they fall ill, lose income or follow public health directions to self-isolate. It’s hard to understand why the government has not been able to make the simple change to stop people losing their homes during this crisis. We even wrote and gave ministers the legislation to do this.

There are other areas of protection for renters where ministers are also falling painfully short. Alongside a halt to evictions, the government should suspend rental payments during this period where people are struggling to keep up, and legislate for a further, manageable period for renters to pay back deferred rent. This is the help already promised for struggling home-owners from government and mortgage lenders. And again, as the basis for a cross-party effort to keep people in their homes Labour has worked with housing lawyers to write legislation which would do this. We’ve given this to the government but there’s no sign they’re willing to act in this way.

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At this time of national crisis people need government to provide reassurance and help to get them through the worst, so the country can recover rapidly after the pandemic passes. As people’s incomes are being hit hard, the government also urgently needs to strengthen the housing safety net, which is threadbare after ten years of cuts. The initial promise made by the Chancellor last week to raise housing benefit support for private renters to cover the cheapest 30 per cent of properties is a welcome start but it still leaves the system of social security support much weaker than in the downturn which followed the global financial crisis ten years ago. Much more will be needed to keep renters from losing their homes.

Coronavirus is a public health emergency; it need not become a crisis of housing and homelessness too. However, this is what will happen if the government’s action continues to fall so short of the scale of this challenge.