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25 March 2020updated 09 Apr 2020 10:56am

The“complete ban” on tenant evictions during the pandemic is a fiction

The government is merely giving renters an extra month to find somewhere new to live – in the middle of a pandemic when staying at home is vital.

By Samir Jeraj

An estimated 20,000 renters are being evicted, leaving them to try and find safe accomodation in the midst of the pandemic, according to the housing charity Shelter.

This falls short of the government’s promise to protect renters from eviction, with Labour shadow housing minister John Healey saying the proposed changes merely extend the notice period for private renters by a month, and do nothing to address the arrears they will likely build up. 

Last week, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that there would be no fear of eviction for England’s eight million private renters: “The government is clear – no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.” The accompanying government statement headlined this policy as a “complete ban on evictions”.

However, the draft Coronavirus Bill published this week merely extends the notice period for private renters by a month (from the usual two months to three months). This means that if you were served with the standard “no fault” Section 21 notice today, you could be out of your home in 12 weeks. 

The draft bill does not appear to cover the estimated 70,000 renters who are lodgers, around 10,000 property guardians living in mostly non-residential buildings, nor the 86,000 households (including 127,000 children) currently living in temporary accommodation – all of whom usually only have to be given 28 days’ notice to leave.

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In one high-profile case, an NHS paramedic called Joseph Hoar revealed last Saturday night that he had been told by his landlady to move out because he might be exposed to Covid-19.

Healey criticised the bill, commenting: “This is not an evictions ban, as Labour argued for, and renters were eventually promised by Boris Johnson. This legislation does not stop people losing their homes as a result of coronavirus, it just gives them some extra time to pack their bags.

Jenrick took to Twitter to counter these comments saying, “there can be no evictions as a result of Coronavirus for 3 months – as promised – and we’ve taken the power to extend if necessary”.

In his original announcement, he did mention the three-month period, saying: “Emergency legislation will be taken forward as an urgent priority so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period.”

But organisations including Shelter, the tenant rights campaign group Generation Rent and homelessness charity Crisis believe this still falls short of the promised “complete ban” in the government’s statement just days earlier.

Shelter’s chief executive Polly Neate described them as “watered-down measures” that would “risk homelessness and uncertainty”.

Generation Rent’s Dan Wilson-Craw said: “They [the government] had this statement last week saying ‘no one needs to be concerned about being evicted’ and we thought this basically meant there is going to be no chance that any court is going to agree to any evictions in the period there’s a pandemic.”

He added: “It seems like it is constantly changing or constantly evolving. There’s a question of whether possession procedures would be able to continue through the courts system, but it all needs to be communicated”.

Jon Sparkes, CEO of Crisis, agreed that the bill “does not go nearly far enough”, calling for a blanket ban on evictions during “this unprecedented national emergency”.

Things are still unclear today, as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) sent out a series of tweets attempting to clarify the position in response to “misleading information”.

It states, “the emergency legislation means there can be no evictions as a result of #coronavirus for 3 months”, adding that, “Clear guidance has been given to judges and bailiffs, meaning that it is highly unlikely that any possession proceedings will continue during this period.”

MHCLG also said any evidence that evictions were proceeding would mean the measures would be reviewed. 

However, housing lawyer Giles Peaker did not agree, saying, “this is not a ‘complete ban on evictions’ as the government promised. It is, at best, a short delay on possession proceedings, and even then only where a notice is served after the commencement date. There is nothing to help protect anyone facing rent arrears due to the effects of coronavirus. This simply stores up new possession proceedings for an additional month or two.”

Peaker responded on Twitter to the claims made by MHCLG, arguing: “Since when has MHCLG given guidance to judges & bailiffs? What guidance has been given to the courts by senior judiciary doesn’t appear to be clear or uniformly applied. Possession cases are not just all stayed (& this has nothing to do with Govt or legislation).”

The situation for the UK’s renters is pressing because they are more likely to be living in overcrowded, insecure and expensive accommodation while also more likely to be in both precarious work and work that will become increasingly necessary for the UK to function.

A report for PwC last year found that nurses in London spent on average 40 per cent of their wages on rent. A third of renters have no savings, and a further fifth only have savings enough to cover two or three rent payments.

The London Renter’s Union has been pressing the case for halting rent payments for the duration of the crisis. It points out that even if 80 per cent of wages are being covered by the government, the ability of many individuals to pay rent will be badly affected, with further precarious or self-employed workers facing an arrears crisis in a few months’ time. The union has gathered over 86,000 signatures on a petition to stop rent payments.

Also absent from the national discussion is how the government is going to address the poor conditions of private rented homes. A greater proportion of private rented homes have damp and are overcrowded compared to both owner-occupied and social homes.

This potentially puts renters at higher risk of contracting coronavirus and means they have to distinguish the symptoms of coronavirus from the respiratory conditions normally associated with living in damp and overcrowded housing.

If the government wants to address the overcrowding risk and increase the capacity for people to self-isolate and to “cohort” them into groups of people with coronavirus, suspected of coronavirus, and free of symptoms, they may have to go beyond using hotel rooms and effectively nationalise the UK’s housing stock – as the post-war Labour government considered when faced with a huge housing and squatting crisis.

One side-effect of the pandemic is that AirBnB holiday homes are reportedly standing empty in large numbers.

Housing policy is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish Housing Minister Kevin Stewart said last week that, “No landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to coronavirus and we are actively considering how best this can be addressed.”

This week, the Scottish government announced that private landlords could only seek eviction once tenants had missed six months of rent payments (instead of the current three months), and that housing tribunals will not uphold arrears due to benefit issues as a reason for eviction. This still falls short of an outright ban, and renters are likely to have to deal with the consequences of their arrears in six months’ time.

In Wales, the Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly has previously introduced stronger protection against evictions for renters, but announced they would be following the policies set in England.

Northern Ireland has traditionally lagged behind in renter protection, taking much longer to introduce deposit protection. It has yet to announce its position on halting evictions, but Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, said she would be pushing for rent and utility freezes and a halt to evictions.

What is perhaps even more confusing is that the government was already consulting on scrapping Section 21 “no fault” evictions entirely, with the expectation that ban would pass in one form or another in this parliament.

How the government went from a pre-crisis promise to end such evictions, to a promise to end all evictions for the duration of the crisis, to retaining a slightly changed and delayed no fault eviction in the Coronavirus Bill, is utterly baffling from a political, social and public health perspective.

An MHCLG spokesperson said:

“We want to be clear that emergency legislation being brought forward means there can be no evictions as a result of coronavirus for three months. The claim that we are rowing back on it is absolute nonsense.

“As soon as legislation is passed, no new possession proceedings will begin – in either the social sector or the private rented sector – for at least the next three months. We have the power to extend this notice period if necessary.

“At the same time, this government is supporting renters through guaranteeing to pay 80 per cent of employee’s wages, if their employer cannot afford to pay them while they are on temporary leave, and increased housing benefit. We have been clear we will do whatever is needed to support people at this difficult time.”

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