Coronavirus: What rights do you have if you can't pay your rent during the pandemic?

More than a fifth of households rent from private landlords and many will see their incomes hit if they have to take an extended time off work due to illness

Ben Chapman
Friday 13 March 2020 22:45
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After sustained pressure from campaigners the government introduced emergency legislation on Wednesday preventing tenants from being evicted from their homes during the coronavirus crisis.

Under the new legislation, all new evictions will be suspended and no new possession proceedings will be permitted during the period of national emergency.

But the government has been urged to more, including introducing "rent holidays" for tenants who struggle financially because of Covid-19.

More than a fifth of UK households live in privately rented accommodation and many will see their incomes hit if they have to take an extended time off work due to illness, school closures or other caring responsibilities.

But most renters in the UK are on what are known as assured shorthold tenancy agreements which give them less protections than tenants in many other European countries.

Statutory sick pay in the UK is also among the lowest in Europe at just £94.25 per week, meaning some people may find it difficult to pay their rent. The government has stepped in to cover 80 per cent of wages for employees who are kept on company pay rolls but do not have any work during the crisis. Benefits to help those out of work completely have also been increased, helping to reverse years of cuts.

What rights do private renters have?

Assured shorthold tenants can usually be evicted at short notice. A landlord can serve a tenant with what's known as a section 8 eviction notice as soon as they are eight weeks behind with rent. Normally, you will then have 14 days’ notice, according to Citizens’ Advice.

A different kind of notice called a section 21 can be served without giving a reason. The tenant usually has two months to leave the property but the notice period can be longer.

A landlord cannot begin either of these types of eviction until the period of national emergency ends.

Announcing the new legislation, Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, said: "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."

However, rent will still be due as normal so tenants may find themselves with a large bill if they cannot pay up for an extended period. Landlords may be willing to make arrangements with tenants to delay or reduce rent payments but they are under no obligation to do so.

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said: “We appreciate that this needs to be a workable solution for renters and landlords, but would stress that any repayment plan must be affordable for tenants.

"If someone loses their job because of the outbreak and has no income coming in, they cannot be faced with intolerable levels of debt once these emergency measures are lifted.”

What should you do?

“If you’re struggling to pay rent, talk to your landlord straight away," says Rachael Gore, senior housing expert at Citizens Advice.

“You should explain the situation and could ask for more time to pay or ask to catch up any missed payments by instalments.

"If you can’t come to an agreement with your landlord, it’s a good idea to pay what you can afford and keep a record of what you offered. You should get advice if you can’t reach an agreement because there is a risk that your landlord might try to evict you."

A repayment plan means you'll make smaller payments to your landlord over a longer period of time. You’ll still have to pay everything back - but it could be easier than paying the full amount in one go.

Don’t offer to pay more than you can realistically afford, Citizens Advice says. You could make the problem worse if you can’t keep up with your payments.

What more could be done?

Several proposals have been made including a "rent holiday" for people struggling to pay their rent. It would be up to the landlord to decide whether or not to grant one.

Under the new legislation buy-to-let landlords can negotiate a mortgage repayment holiday of up to three months from their lender. They will be under pressure to pass it on so that their tenants do not have to pay rent during the period that the mortgage payments are suspended.

Charities and unions have called for significant increases to benefit payments and statutory sick pay to help people cope with bills if they cannot work.

Eviction

Outside the period of national emergency, your landlord would have to give you notice of eviction and then get a court order in order to make you leave.

If you decide to stay in the property past the notice period your landlord will need to ask a court to order you to leave your home. It is not known how a court would deal with case of renters who have fallen behind because of coronavirus.

When the notice period ends, your landlord can apply for a possession order. They must apply to court within a year of giving you the notice. If they don't, the notice will expire and the landlord can't use it.

The court will send you papers which include a form for you to outline your defence, details of the court hearing date and any evidence your landlord has submitted.

After reviewing all of the evidence the court will make a decision on whether or not the eviction can go ahead. If the court orders you to leave, it usually gives you 2 weeks but can allow up to 6 weeks. You will probably also have to pay your landlord's legal costs.

Only bailiffs appointed by the court can evict you from your home.

Benefits

If you have to take time off work and are not paid, or receive sick pay that is less than your usual wages, you might be entitled to claim benefits, or your existing benefits might increase. Seek advice if you currently receive housing benefit or tax credits, for example.

“If you are employed and can’t work at home and you follow NHS guidance to stay at home for 7 or 14 days because of coronavirus you’ll be considered unfit for work," says Kate Smith, senior benefits expert at Citizens Advice. "You will qualify for statutory sick pay (SSP) if you usually get it when off work sick."

Statutory sick pay is paid for up to 28 weeks.

The government has said new claimants suffering from coronavirus or required to stay at home can be paid from day one of the absence from work. Employers with up to 250 staff will be refunded by the government for up to 14 days of sick pay for employees off work because of coronavirus.

You can’t get SSP if you’re self-employed, but if you have paid national insurance contributions regularly for the last couple of years you should qualify for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the government has increased the basic level of unemployment benefit by £20 per week to the same level as SSP- £94.25.

The Local Housing Allowance has also been modified so that it is sufficient to cover the cost of 30 per cent of rental properties in the local area. Previously this had been as low as 15 per cent.

What have landlords said about the situation?

The National Landlord’s Association said: “We understand and sympathise that some tenants may struggle to pay their rent where they are seeing a temporary drop in their income if they can’t work because of the coronavirus.

In such cases it is essential that they inform their landlord at the earliest opportunity and try to work out future payment arrangements.

“Where this creates problems for landlords with their mortgage repayments we would hope that lenders give landlords the same flexibility with payment holidays that they are offering to home owners.”

Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords association, said: “Landlord groups welcomes government support.

"We recognise the exceptional circumstances and we will work collaboratively with government to ensure these measures protect both landlords and tenants."

For more information visit Shelter's website: https://england.shelter.org.uk/housing_advice

Or Citizens' Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/housing/

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