On 22 April 2021, Lord Bird (Crossbench) is due to ask the Government “what assessment they have made of the risk of mass evictions resulting from COVID-19-related poverty; and what steps they will take to prevent such evictions”.
Housing support during the coronavirus pandemic
In England, legislation is currently in place to prevent evictions taking place until 31 May 2021, unless in serious circumstances such as:
- Cases where the court is satisfied that the claim is against trespassers who are persons unknown.
- Cases where the court is satisfied that the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of anti-social behaviour, nuisance or false statements, domestic abuse in social tenancies or substantial rent arrears at least equivalent to six months’ rent.
- Where the property is unoccupied, and the court is satisfied that the order for possession was made wholly or partly on the grounds of death of the tenant.
The Government has said that, as 14 days’ notice is required before an eviction can be carried out, it does not expect any evictions to take place until mid-June 2021, except for those carried out under serious circumstances.
In addition, the Government introduced new rules in England which require landlords to provide tenants with 6 months’ notice before they can start possession proceedings, unless in the circumstances outlined above. This legislation is also due to expire on 31 May 2021. Prior to these changes, brought in on 26 March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a landlord usually had to give two months’ notice to a tenant they wanted to evict.
The Government has said it has “provided an unprecedented package of financial support to help renters” during the pandemic. This financial support included:
- Increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile of local market rates in each area, which will be maintained in cash terms in 2021/22.
- A £20 uplift in Universal Credit payments, extended until September 2021.
- A one-off payment of £500 to eligible Working Tax Credit claimants.
- The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, to provide support to businesses to pay staff salaries until September 2021.
- Provision of £180 million for local authorities to distribute as Discretionary Housing Payments for those in need of additional support in 2020/21 and of £140 million in 2021/22.
What has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on housing payments?
A study by the Resolution Foundation, published in February 2021, considered the impact of the pandemic on rent arrears. Using a representative survey of over 6000 working-age adults in the UK, it estimated that, in January 2021:
- 9% (284,000) of families in the social rented sector were behind on their housing payments.
- 6% (280,000) of private renters were behind on their rent.
- 2% (190,000) of mortgaged homeowners were behind on their payments.
Overall, it estimated that 756,000 families were behind on their housing payments in January 2021. It says that of these, 450,000 can be described as ‘Covid-19 excess’; that is the number of families over and above the number expected in ‘normal’ times. It estimated that at least twice as many families than ‘normal’ experienced housing stress during the pandemic.
In its report, the Resolution Foundation also estimated the volume of possession claims that could be made to the courts in 2021 to 2022. It set out that the courts could have to handle a ‘normal’ caseload of 25,000 claims per quarter, as well as the ‘pandemic backlog’ (cases that were due to be handled last year but were stopped by the pandemic) of 15,000 claims per quarter, and ‘Covid-19 excess claims’ of 25,000 per quarter, based on its estimation that the level of arrears currently stand at twice their normal level.
The think tank said there are “many uncertainties” in its calculations but that this could give an idea of the strain the court system could be under in 2021.
- 58% of those currently behind on rent were not in arrears before the pandemic.
- The average value of people’s rent arrears is £730.
- The total value of rent arrears is estimated to be £360 million.
- A targeted financial package to help renters pay off arrears accrued since March 2020.
- Reforms to the welfare system to provide renters with housing security.
The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) also considered the impact of the pandemic on landlords and renters. It commissioned a survey of 2,077 private tenants between 17 November and 9 December 2020, and found that:
- 7% of those surveyed had built arrears due to the pandemic.
- 18% of those in arrears had rent debts of more than £1,000.
- 11% of private renters surveyed are now unemployed.
The NRLA also surveyed its members in England and Wales between 5 December 2020 and 18 January 2021. Its findings included:
- 60% had lost rental income as a result of the pandemic.
- 65% said that the pandemic was likely to have a negative impact on their lettings.
- 34% said they were more likely either to leave the market entirely or sell some of the properties that they rent out.
What has been said in Parliament about the issue?
On 31 March 2021, the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee published its report, Protecting the Homeless and the Private Rented Sector: MHCLG’s Response to Covid-19. The committee raised concerns that the end of the eviction ban in May 2021 puts many renters who have not been able to pay their rent during the pandemic at risk of becoming homeless. It also outlined that the issue of rent arrears affects both renters and landlords.
The committee made two recommendations to the Government regarding the private rented sector:
- It called for the Government to publish an exit plan on how it intends for the sector to transition out of the pandemic; and
- It called on the Government to deliver a financial package to support tenants to repay rent arrears. The committee said that its preferred method would be through discretionary housing payments, which it estimated would likely cost between £200 and £300 million. It said that this package “would likely save the Exchequer a substantial amount” in what it would otherwise have to pay in homelessness assistance.
The Government has not yet responded to the committee’s report.
Similar calls for action have been proposed by other members of the House of Commons. On 12 April 2021, several MPs tabled an early day motion to ask the Government for a debate on “the potential merits of extending the moratorium on evictions in response to the covid-19 outbreak; and further calls on the Government to write off all rent arrears accrued during the covid-19 outbreak until the end of March 2022 or later”. Early day motions are rarely given time for debate, but are used to put on record the views of MPs.
Members of the House of Lords have also commented on this issue. During a debate on extending the ban on evictions on 18 March 2021, some members raised concerns that the Government was only producing short-term fixes in this area. They called for longer-term policy solutions to address the problem of renter’s debt.
In addition, members have debated so-called ‘no-fault’ evictions, whereby landlords do not have to give a reason for beginning eviction proceedings against a tenant. During a question on no-fault evictions on 27 January 2021, several members asked the Government for an update on its plans to introduce legislation to provide renters with protections against such evictions, as set out by the Government in the Queen’s Speech in 2019. In response, the Government said it was currently focused on responding to the pandemic but it would “bring forward a renters’ reform Bill once the urgencies of responding to the pandemic have passed and when parliamentary time allows”.
What has the Government said?
In response to a written question about evictions in March 2021, the Minister of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Christopher Pincher, said that the Government’s “package of support is preventing evictions”. He said that the English Housing Survey Household Resilience Study found that 93% of private renters were up to date with rent payments in June–July 2020. In addition, Mr Pincher said that the Ministry of Justice recorded 548 landlord repossessions between April and December 2020, compared to 22,444 in the same period in 2019.
During a debate on regulations to extend the ban on evictions during the pandemic on 18 March 2021, several members of the House of Lords called for the Government to introduce some form of loan scheme for tenants to pay their arrears. Responding to the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Justice, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, said:
Why do we not want to put a loan system in place? It is because we do not think that adding more debt is the way out here. We prefer to proceed as the Chancellor has proceeded by giving non-repayable finance to renters and enabling landlords to benefit from such things as mortgage payment holidays, which are available until July.
- Polly Neate, ‘Coronavirus has pushed our housing emergency to new heights’, Huffington Post, 26 March 2021
- Melissa Lawford, ‘“I’ve lost £26k”: landlord crisis hits breaking point one year on from the eviction ban’, Telegraph (£), 21 March 2021
- Shelter, ‘Pandemic leaves six million people more afraid of becoming homeless’, 16 March 2021
- Robert Booth, ‘Eviction orders being issued despite UK Government Covid pledge’, Guardian, 28 February 2021
Cover image by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash.