Unmesh Desai: Government protections for private renters aren’t strong enough

Unmesh Desai: Government protections for private renters aren’t strong enough

Sadly, we have seen a number of London landlords attempting to act outside the law and evict tenants during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent and egregious example concerned a household of junior doctors in Tooting, who had to find somewhere else to live after one of the four moved out to stay with family, leaving them short on paying their rent and unable to come to an agreement with their landlord. An incredibly generous family stepped in and offered them accommodation. It shouldn’t have taken the kindness of strangers to fill the vacuum left by their landlord’s lost sense of compassion and perspective.

It goes without saying that not all landlords are so unscrupulous, and many are showing the level of consideration to their tenants this situation demands. However, key questions remain. How many households are currently being evicted illegally by stealth and is the government’s guidance for protecting renters robust enough?

The initial legislation to prevent evictions has failed to live up to promises that nobody would be kicked out of their home during this crisis. In fact, all it did was extend the notice period for new evictions to three months, rather than the typical two. This was widely criticised, as it would do nothing to help tenants who may have already been served eviction notices being forced out of their homes during the peak of the crisis.

It also fell short of protecting people living in some in insecure accommodation: those housed in hostel or other temporary accommodation under interim licences issued by local authorities under the Housing Act 2016; lodgers and others who share accommodation with their landlord or a landlord’s family member; and some whose accommodation is tied to their jobs, such as carers, pub or hotel staff or members of the clergy.

Despite its initial suggestion that these criticisms were “misleading” the government has now strengthened its guidance and agreed with the court service to suspend all housing possession proceeding for an initial 90 days. This is welcome. Nonetheless, these measures may store up problems until after the crisis has passed. The Mayor has likened the steps taken so far to “simply kicking a can down the road.”

That is because any rent that is not paid for now – if, for example, a tenant has lost their job as a result of the coronavirus crisis – will still be owed to the landlord. The courts will not allow the landlord to evict the tenant at the moment, but when the crisis passes and the courts re-open, the tenant will still be in rent arrears and can still lose their home.

The government has quite rightly worked with lenders to ensure homeowners and buy-to-let landlords can get a payment holiday on their mortgage during the crisis if needed. However, there is no similar provision of rent relief for private tenants.

Tenants could find themselves in large debt and might effectively have to pay double rent for months after the worst of the crisis is over. Private renters are particularly vulnerable: according to the Department of Work and Pensions, 57 per cent of private rented households nationally have no savings, compared with only 28 per cent of homeowners. This will have a greater impact in the capital than elsewhere, as more Londoners rent privately and at a significantly higher cost than the rest of the country.

Ministers and the Mayor have correctly focused on the most vulnerable in our society, and have already spent huge sums of money to help rough sleepers get off the streets. But, given that we know that the end of private tenancies is the leading cause of homelessness, the government can and must do more to help private renters. Otherwise,  we will face a flood of evictions in the autumn.

While many private renters may benefit from the new schemes for employees and the self-employed to have their earnings covered, many may still fall between the gaps in these programmes. The government should ensure that these renters get relief from rent, whether that is by stopping landlords from charging it, or by providing direct grants to renters to prevent them from falling behind.

In addition, the chancellor must go further on his recent pledges and increase Local Housing Allowance to the fiftieth percentile – the median – for all areas so that benefits cover average rents, and end the five-week delay for Universal Credit payments so that tenants don’t immediately build up arrears. The government must should also make sure that statutory sick pay covers average rents in London, regardless of what causes you to fall ill. Londoners in the precarious private rented sector need better.

Unmesh Desai is the London Assembly Member for City & East constituency and the Assembly Labour Group’s spokesperson on housing.

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