Rowenna Davis: London’s renters need longer-term support to cope with coronavirus impacts

Rowenna Davis: London’s renters need longer-term support to cope with coronavirus impacts

It was a classic Sunday night – back when that meant work the next morning – and James was getting ready to teach his classes the next day. His live-in landlord came in, agitated. He hated to ask, his landlord said, but as a teacher James was simply exposed to too much risk working among all those children and he wanted him to leave. Within seven days James had moved out to live with an elderly couple he met in church who had a small spare room, spreading the risk of infection to a different neighbourhood and a more vulnerable household.

Soon after, the government soon stepped in with a three-month ban on evictions,    preventing others suffering the same fate as James. For now. Because without clearer long-term support, we are simply deferring the problem. The clock is ticking on a much bigger rent crisis that, without intervention, could have devastating consequences for the nation’s debt and health. 

Here’s why. At the moment, tenants can suspend their rent payments, but at some point after the crisis they are expected to agree with their landlords an “affordable repayment plan” for making up any rent they not paid during the suspension period (paragraph four of the government’s press release).

But many of these renters have no savings at all to rely on, and many are in low-paid jobs that may well have dried up due to corona. Many people were living from pay check to pay check before the crisis, and it’s not clear how this extra debt will be cleared after it. In a best-case scenario we will saddle many struggling renters with a difficult debt resulting from from a virus beyond their control and, in the worst case, we risk a flurry of evictions happening just as we start opening our doors again – hardly in line with best medical advice. 

Furthermore, as Sarah Jones MP has been arguing, this solution treats renters as second class citizens. Landlords, many of whom are enjoying a mortgage holiday under the government’s measures, will have the whole period of their mortgage to make back their payments. But tenants are unlikely to be granted the luxury of this time frame, making the situation profoundly unequal.

Burdened with the worry that evictions could restart in June, it’s hardly surprising we still see images of packed public transport. For many people, often the poorest on the breadline, the risk of getting sick is simply outweighed by the financial risk of becoming homeless. Once again, economic vulnerability for some translates into a health risk for us all. We are only as strong as the weakest link in our chain.

There are various possible solutions here. The London Renters Union has called for a complete suspension of rents, but that places 100 er cent of the burden on landlords, some of whom don’t have a mortgage and rely on rents as their only form of income. At the other end, the government could protect renters by guaranteeing a longer time period to pay back rent only once they reach a certain income threshold, but that still places more of the burden on mostly poorer people for a situation that was not of their making.

One other option, suggested by Sadiq Khan, would be to raise housing benefit to a level that enables the unemployed to cover their rent, although this adds more complexity to a system that is already quite overburdened and leaves more residents beholden to the state. Whatever decision is made, there must be a fair balance of interests struck between renters, landlords and the government in the decision-making process to have any hope of a just and sustainable solution.    

While all of this is being worked out a national level, there is plenty of practical support available in the community. The London Renters Union has a great template you can use for writing to your landlord, and in my neighbourhood Croydon Renters Covid-19 has been established as part of Croydon Mutual Aid to offer advice and support. If you’re struggling to navigate the complexity of benefit payments, Entitled To is a great resource that can help you figure out what help you are eligible for. Contacting your MP if you’re in a difficult situation is also a good option, particularly if you have someone campaigning on this (such as Sarah Jones, whose work with struggling renters has helped inform this article). 

The government deserves praise for instituting the eviction ban. But, even now, those terrifying eviction notices are dropping on the mats of homes across the country. all that’s changed is that they can’t be enforced in the courts until after the ban. Most people don’t wait to move until a decision goes to the courts and will be anxiously searching for alternative accommodation right now. To stop a flurry of unsafe moves after the ban that would upset communities and increase the risk to the nation’s health, the government must work with renters and landlords to provide sustainable support. A home is not a home unless it is secure, and this virus cannot not be contained if people are forced to move. 

Rowenna Davis is a teacher, political activist and writer. Follower her on Twitter. James is not the real name of the renter mentioned in this article. Photograph: GLA.

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