On Monday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told MPs on the Housing Select Committee that renters would have “added protection” after a temporary ban on evictions which was introduced during the pandemic is lifted. His solution, a duty on the landlord to “act in good faith” before starting eviction proceedings, will not work. Unless stronger measures are introduced alongside this, millions of renters will still be at risk of debt, eviction and homelessness once the ban is lifted.
Jenrick announced that the government is planning on extending the “pre action protocol”, which social landlords must already follow before evicting a tenant, to the private rented sector. With this in place, landlords would have a “duty” to “reach out to [tenants], discuss their situation, and try to find an affordable repayment plan” before making efforts to evict them. If the protocol is anything like the one in place for social landlords, it would mean fines for landlords who fail to follow it, and the court would take this into account when making a decision – but even then there would be no guarantee that failure to comply with the protocol would prevent an eviction.
This protocol alone is not nearly enough to protect renters once the eviction ban is lifted. First and foremost, Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act still allows landlords to evict tenants with just two months’ notice, without giving a reason. The government pledged to end it back in April 2019, but legislation has yet to materialise. As a result, four-and-half million households live with the threat of eviction in the midst of a pandemic – whether or not they are behind on rent. As long as Section 21 remains, all other efforts to ensure security are undermined.
Renters who have run up arrears due to the pandemic are also at risk of eviction under Section 8 of the Housing Act. Asking tenants and landlords to agree to a plan to reduce those arrears ignores the glaring power imbalance between the two, and the financial profile of renters in the UK. Going into this crisis, renters spent around a third of their income on rent. As a result, two-thirds had no savings. Since the pandemic hit, 60 per cent of renters have suffered a loss in income and 1.2 million are at high risk of losing their jobs. Tenants turning to Universal Credit for help are discovering that it does not meet the cost of rent, despite the minor increase announced by Rishi Sunak in March, and are choosing between rent and essentials such as food. Even for many of those who return to full pay soon, no level of rent repayment will be affordable.
Jenrick’s department has been rightly praised for taking bold action to ensure rough sleepers are housed during the pandemic, and that victims of domestic violence get priority access to housing. But when it comes to the private rented sector, his proposed solutions are completely out of step with the scale of the problem.
To ensure no one loses their home as the result of the pandemic, the government must bring forward plans to end Section 21, and if necessary extend the eviction ban until a new system is in place. Alongside this, the government should amend Section 8 to state that rent arrears accrued during the pandemic cannot be used as legal grounds for eviction, now or ever. This would offer real protection.
Longer term, the government must tackle the debt tenants have built up while unable to work. Restoring local housing allowance (LHA), to cover average local rents, removing the caps that limit what tenants in expensive cities like London can receive, and ending the five-week wait for Universal Credit would mean the benefits system actually supported renters who needed it. A freeze on rents for 12 months would prevent landlords from taking advantage of a more generous benefits system, or hiking rents on tenants who have been told not to move house. For those with arrears they have no way of paying, the government must find a way of compensating them, or legally writing them off. Anything less will leave renters vulnerable.
The pandemic has underlined the importance of a safe and secure home, but millions are at risk of losing theirs. The government must act now to avoid an evictions and homelessness crisis when the ban is lifted.
Caitlin Wilkinson is policy and public affairs manager at Generation Rent