Cllr Jennifer Brathwaite is the Deputy Leader of Lambeth Council (Housing and Homelessness) and a councillor in Gipsy Hill ward.
Almost a third of Londoners live in private rented accommodation. With the forecast of the worst recession in 300 years and unprecedented levels of unemployment looming, renters will face a deluge of eviction proceedings when the temporary ban on evictions is lifted on 25th June. The government needs to act now, extend the suspension of evictions and introduce long terms measures to protect renters.
RIGHT TO A LONGER EVICTION NOTICE
As it now stands, a landlord who wishes to end a tenancy must give all renters a minimum of three month’s written notice that they want to end the tenancy and seek possession of the premises (the previous minimum notice period was two months). The landlord will then have to wait for the three months to pass before starting possession proceedings in the courts. Currently the requirement for longer notices applies to the 30th September 2020 but it may be extended in the future. Tenants are effectively only getting an extra month’s grace which in these precarious economic times is totally inadequate.
SUSPENSION OF COURT PROCEEDINGS
From 27 March 2020, all housing possession proceedings going through the courts are suspended until at least 25 June 2020 (this suspension might be extended beyond this date). During this period, no court can hear possession cases or make an order for possession, neither can bailiffs evict tenants. The landlord is still, however, able to serve a notice seeking possession as mentioned above.
FAILED ON ITS PROMISE TO PROTECT RENTERS
At first glance these emergency measures come as a welcome relief to renters. On closer inspection, however, the new rules are lightweight and do not provide the reassurance or protection tenants need in these financially precarious times. The government has failed to deliver on its promise to protect renters.
An extra month’s notice is not enough. What are you meant to do in that extra time? As the former Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey said, it “just gives [renters] some extra time to pack their bags”. Landlords are still able to serve a possession notice during this crisis which will add to pressures renters are already facing.
The rules also offer no protection to those in temporary accommodation or to lodgers. Many are familiar with the sad case of Rajesh Jayaseelan, the Uber driver who died from Covid-19 after he was illegally locked out of the house he shared with his landlord who feared he might bring the virus into the house. I fear that this is not an unusual experience for lodgers.
There is no help to deal with the accrual of rent arrears. The new rules do not address the problem that a large proportion of tenants now face – not being able to pay the rent. The Government does not have an exit plan for renters who will be building up rent arrears during this crisis. Government guidance merely suggest that tenants talk to their landlords and agree a rent repayment schedule or agree a rent reduction. In cases of illness or financial hardship due to covid-19 leading to rent arrears, the government has asked landlords not to issue a possession notice. This is sadly only voluntary and has no legal force. Whilst some landlords may be sympathetic to a tenant’s plight, most, I suspect will not be.
Unless a landlord agrees to a reduction in rent, many tenants will accumulate rent arears without the means of paying it off. The London Renters Union launched a campaign on 15th May demanding the government freeze rents to stop renters building up big rent debts.
The threat of eviction remains. The 90-day suspension of possession proceedings in the courts is merely a pause. Once the suspension is lifted, normal service will resume in June and there will be a tsunami of possession cases in the courts. Most tenants who have accrued arrears during the covid-19 crisis will face possession proceedings and the courts will have little discretion to save them from eviction; provided the landlord establishes (at least 3 months’) rent arears, the courts must grant a possession order. Worse still, even where there are no arrears, a landlord can obtain a section 21 “no fault” possession order once the tenancy comes to an end.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT URGENTLY NEEDS TO DO
- Immediately increase welfare support for renters – suspend the Benefit Cap, restore Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates to median market rents, and cover any shortfall in rental payments of private tenants unable to pay them due to COVID-19 – including those with no recourse to public funds.
- Extend the suspension of court possession proceedings by the further 3 months
- Make Section 8 discretionary for Covid-19 arrears – Once the suspension of court proceedings is lifted, give the courts discretion not to grant a possession order under section 8 (currently the courts have to grant a possession order if there are 3 or more months arrears) making it difficult for landlords to evict a tenant for Covid-19 related arrears.
- Scrap so-called ‘no fault’ section 21 evictions, the leading cause of family homelessness. This will transform the lives of renters making it impossible for landlords to evict tenants for no reason once the contract comes to an end. The government needs to commit to and accelerate its promise to abolish no fault evictions and provide genuine security to renters.
- Build more social housing – The fundamental cause of high rents and tenants stuck in poor quality homes is the paucity of properties available to rent at affordable levels. Sign Shelter’s petition demanding that the government builds the social housing we need
- Better funding for legal advice – Due to the lack of legal aid, there is still a dearth of free legal housing advice. Allowing landlords to flout the law and force tenant’s out without due process.
The financial stress that most private renters are under is due to the long-term failure of a series of Tory governments to invest in building social and truly affordable housing to rent or buy. We need a government who is able and willing to deal with the immediate challenges the coronavirus pandemic brings and who is committed to seriously investing in a radical nation-wide house building programme on a massive scale. The government has left this most important issue in the hands of private developers, tinkering at the edges with schemes designed to keep house prices and rents high.
Cllr Jennifer Brathwaite
INFORMATION ON LAMBETH’S HOUSING SERVICES
Homeless or at risk of homelessness– Lambeth’s Housing Options Adviser.
Telephone: 020 7926 4200 Email: [email protected]
Lambeth’s council tenants or residents living in temporary accommodation in financial difficulties Housing Support Team – Telephone: 0207 926 6399 Email: [email protected]