London's renters face a summer of misery – poverty and homelessness await

Unless the government cancels rent arrears and extends the ban on evictions, once lockdown lifts the capital's tenants will be made even more vulnerable than they already are

Sian Berry
Wednesday 22 April 2020 12:02 BST
MP Rosena Allin-Khan responds to news three NHS junior doctors evicted during coronavirus lockdown

London’s 2.4 million private renters have a brutal deal at the best of times: the highest rents, a largely unregulated rental market, and often a complete failure to enforce the rules that do exist. I have been renting in London for fifteen years and, along with my work as a Camden councillor and on the Lonndon Assembly’s Housing Committee, I have seen the kind of desperate situations people are forced to accept just to keep the roof over their heads.

With coronavirus and lockdown disrupting almost every part of our lives – particularly for those in low-paid or precarious work – London risks a new wave of poverty and homelessness. The government must take urgent action to fill the gaps in its plans for renters.

So far the government has suspended section 21 of the Housing Act – a sly piece of legislation that allowed for even faultless tenants to lose their home with very little notice – for three months, which is progress. However this intimidating rule, often used to threaten tenants into not complaining about substandard homes, should have been permanently scrapped. Other gaps in the Coronavirus Bill – such as protections for property guardians – will hit London hardest.

London’s housing market already exploits vulnerable renters; the Trust for London’s Poverty Profile, released yesterday, revealed that households in the capital living in poverty spend 56 per cent of their income on housing costs, compared to 37 per cent in the rest of the country. That’s why we are already campaigning for rent controls. Yet with coronavirus, we must go further. Without additional measures to support renters we could see a new wave of homelessness and poverty this summer as the crisis enters the next phase.

The Mayor of London has made proposals for some new protections for renters today, including ensuring emergency benefits cover London’s high rents and weakening landlords’ ability to evict for arrears. These proposals are a useful contribution to the debate around renters rights, but they are not enough. Sadiq Khan has left out two key protections needed for renters in the next phase of the crisis – extending the eviction ban, and preventing rent arrears from causing homelessness and debt in the future.

First, the government should immediately extend the eviction ban and not lift it in June, as currently planned. Lifting the ban on court proceedings risks a wave of new cases.

Many people in arrears will still fall through the cracks, including many in precarious work who cannot prove their loss of income is a direct effect of coronavirus. Extending the ban on evictions will give the breathing space and time needed to get proper data together on the impact of the crisis so far, and for proper support to be put in place that does not create gaps and risk people losing their homes unfairly.

Second, we must legislate to forgive the arrears built up by renters so far, and put the onus on landlords to claim government relief for this effect of the crisis, not place the burden on tenants.

Increasing housing benefit rates and income support to levels that cover rents is necessary, but the early stages of the crisis have seen many renters building up arrears as debt to their landlords.

Under the government’s current plans, landlords are expected to put in place repayment plans once lockdown ends, and at the worst possible time. Without security for their jobs and incomes, renters cannot be expected to agree to service debts they have built up unfairly, and rent repayment schemes risk driving even more Londoners into poverty. The right way to approach this is to put the onus on landlords by cancelling all arrears built up so far and requiring landlords to claim back from the government for arrears accrued during the crisis, while also increasing benefit levels to cover rents in full for those who have lost incomes.

We have already seen cases of landlords requiring tenants to pay 100 per cent rent increases in June and July. We know we cannot trust all landlords show the “compassion” asked of them by the government, and we cannot afford to leave yet more gaps for tenants to fall through as we enter the next phase of this crisis.

Sian Berry is a co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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