Thousands of renters will have breathed a sigh of relief as the government further extended the deadline that protects them from summary eviction. As well as the new deadline of 20 September, there is a six-month ban on most evictions taking place until the end of March 2021. So those who would have risked losing both their jobs and homes when Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme winds up this autumn have been given a temporary respite.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick appears – so far – to be honouring his pledge that “no renter who has lost income due to Coronavirus will be forced out of their home”. Under Coronavirus emergency legislation, the notice period landlords must give tenants was also extended from two to three months – although this reprieve runs out at the end of September. The guidance to courts on evictions is that they should prioritise “the most egregious cases” such as anti-social behaviour or tenants who have paid nothing for a year.
However, Shelter estimates that more than 170,000 private tenants in England have already been threatened with eviction by landlords and letting agents despite the ban, and nearly a quarter of a million risk losing their homes because of mounting debts. In crowded Sussex and the South East, these problems are magnified by a housing market that lags behind housing need, with a growing number of buy-to-let landlords selling up and further reducing the rental stock. Put simply, there are not enough homes – and not enough room in temporary council accommodation – for those who in the coming months find themselves suddenly without a roof over their heads.
Once the evictions ban is lifted, under current law anyone with two months’ arrears can be evicted through the courts. How soon the courts can act though is a moot point. Earlier this year, even before lockdown froze the court system, the average time between claims and repossessions taking place was 23.6 weeks, according to the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA), which wants to see much greater use of deciding cases electronically or through mediation.
Despite the ministerial move to try to head off a homelessness crisis this winter, tenants rights groups such as Acorn are already mobilising to protect at-risk renters.
And while Brighton and Hove city council has welcomed the extension of the ban to September 20, its joint housing chair, David Gibson, says: “It is not nearly long enough. We are already facing a huge homeless crisis.
“We’re currently housing nearly 400 homeless people in our Covid-19 emergency accommodation and are working hard to support them into more secure housing. This is on top of the 1,700 households already in our emergency and temporary accommodation and the thousands on our housing waiting list.”
Wealden district council says it is developing a package of support from this autumn for tenants threatened with losing their homes. Hastings, with private rentals at 38 per cent to 55 per cent of total housing stock and with a chronic lack of affordable accommodation, is also on high alert.
Andrew Batsford, lead councillor for housing and homelessness, says, “The council has continued to receive new homelessness presentations during lockdown. The extension is only a temporary respite from the threat of eviction for those at risk, leaving many families stressed and uncertain.” The council currently has 242 households living in emergency accommodation, including 36 former rough sleepers.
Labour nationally is calling for the government to use the evictions respite to scrap the benefits cap which has left some families an average £248 a month out of pocket. And the housing charity Shelter has joined landlords and letting agents in urging the government to help renters clear Coronavirus-related debt arrears. The NRLA wants compensation for landlords who face financial hardship as a result of the evictions ban and says the extension “should not be used as an excuse for those with the means but who choose not to pay their rent”.
A recent survey commissioned by the NRLA found that, while 90 per cent of tenants paid their rent as normal during lockdown, 74 per cent received a “positive response” after approaching their landlord or letting agent for support. The NRLA clearly represents the responsible end of the rental market. Not all landlords are members and not all will be prepared to take a considerate view. They are also likely to remind the minister of his pledge that landlords would be protected too.
The first step for tenants receiving an eviction notice is not to move, but to seek advice from bodies such as Citizens Advice. In Brighton, anyone facing difficulties is advised to email the council’s Early Intervention Team. Hastings Council is also working with tenants to offer advice and financial support with partners including Brighton Housing Trust.