A study published this week by Citizens Advice has found that one in seven London tenants are now in rent arrears due the impact of consecutive lockdowns. Recently, the government finally chose to do the right thing by extending the evictions ban. However, coupled with the fact that it was announced at the last minute, this ban will only last for another six weeks, perpetuating a cycle of anxiety and stress for struggling renters.
Ministers also snuck in a huge loophole – landlords are now exempt from the evictions ban if their tenants have built up six months of arrears, even during the pandemic. It would be scandalous to see so many made homeless in the midst of a national emergency through no fault of their own. That is why I am backing Sadiq Khan’s calls for the government to provide grants to clear the arrears of renters impacted by the pandemic.
The pandemic has revealed that, even in a crisis, the government will do its best to avoid taking the necessary action to make our welfare system fairer. They have grudgingly taken a needle and thread to tentatively sew up the holes they have poked in the safety net over the last ten years, when these should have all been patched up as a priority when we entered the first lockdown.
The huge scale of job losses in London over the last nine months has been tragic to witness, with thousands now reliant on Universal Credit. As we have seen since its rollout, these payments are barely enough to cover the costs of renting in the capital. This is not helped by the nonsensical five-week wait policy and the benefit cap that are both somehow still in place. Callous and myopic plans to proceed with cutting Universal Credit payments in April will only further exacerbate matters.
There is also the damaging legacy of the government’s decision to cut Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and subsequently freeze it over the last decade to consider. While ministers have more recently taken steps to increase LHA to cover the lowest 30% of rents in a local area, this has evidently been insufficient.
When it was introduced in 2008, amid the global financial crisis, LHA was set at the 50th percentile – in plainer terms, covering average rents. As we face another deep crisis, ministers must raise it to this level again, at least as a temporary emergency measure.
To add to all of this, the government has failed to ban section 21 or “no fault” evictions, despite pledging almost two years ago to do so. Over the summer, even with the evictions ban, over 350 households in the capital alone needed housing assistance from their local council after being issued with a section 21 notice from their landlords.It was recently revealed by the Mayor that one in five complainants to his “Report a rogue landlord or letting agent” tool have reported being a victim of an unfair eviction.
In October, I wrote the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask if they could set out a timetable for when the no fault evictions ban will come into force, but I was told that it will have to wait until the pandemic is no longer an urgent concern. So, disappointingly, there will be yet more kicking the can down the road on this for an indeterminate period.
Going forward, the government needs to take a much more pragmatic approach and put in place a long-term strategy to help renters through the dark and challenging months ahead. We need a much lengthier evictions ban and a stronger safety net.
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