UK: Tenants’ unions demand government strengthen protections for renters

by Ceren Sagir

Morning Star | May 12, 2020

Posters referencing Covid-19 and a rent strike in Bristol

BRITAIN’S biggest tenants’ unions penned an open letter to the government today to demand strengthened protections for renters from the coronavirus crisis.

Acorn, Living Rent and the London Renters Union (LRU) wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick to demand that the government suspends all rents immediately, cancels all rent debts and puts in place more robust measures against evictions.

In March, evictions were suspended for three months in England & Wales and for six months in Scotland, while expanded social security and income support was provided.

But tenants’ unions have warned that the emergency measures did not go far enough and, with the deadlines for their end drawing near, millions of renters are at heightened risk of debt and eviction.

About 60 per cent of tenants have suffered losses to their income, with many left out of government support schemes or without the income to cover rent and other essentials, according to a recent poll by the Guardian.

Even before the crisis, homelessness charity Shelter found that a staggering 60 per cent of renting families could be just one pay cheque away from losing their home.

During the pandemic, homeowners and landlords have been able to take advantage of mortgage holidays, but rent is still due from tenants.

And the government’s recent guidelines have clarified that landlords can issue suspended eviction notices to renters who enter into debt.

Acorn chairman Tom Renhard said that unless there is strong government intervention to protect tenants from evictions and to support them with housing costs, millions of renters will potentially face mounting debts and homelessness through no fault of their own.

“We need to support people to ensure they can focus on other priorities without the risk of losing their home looming over their heads,” he said.

Many tenants are experiencing shortfalls in income through the furlough scheme, and a report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) think tank has found that universal credit is not enough to provide the necessary safety net for tenants during the crisis.

As a result, tenants are now often seeking work in front-line jobs — especially in the gig economy — to pay their rents.

LRU’s Amina Gichinga said: “Many renters feel they have no choice but to break social-distancing guidelines and go out to work, just so their landlords can continue to profit.

“This downturn will continue for a long time, and many renters are already in arrears. So without greater protections for renters, we’re heading for a rent debt and evictions crisis.”

Living Rent member Carol McLafferty said the number of individuals struggling every month shows that the government’s call for landlords to be compassionate “has not worked and does not go far enough.”

“Individuals and families are being forced to choose between rent and food. Rent is not essential,” she said.

“The government’s eviction ban is nothing more than a plaster: simply postponing a tidal wave of evictions that will engulf tenants when the lockdown is lifted.

“We need to ensure that everyone is protected and that housing remains the government’s priority in defence against the pandemic.

“Our society is only as healthy as its most vulnerable members.”

Young Labour said in a statement today that it “rejects and condemns” the Labour Party’s policy of tenants having to pay back any rent missed during the crisis over a two-year period.

The group claimed that this demand “goes against the spirit of our party’s programme” and would amount to a 12-per-cent rent rise for tenants who miss three months of payments before what the Bank of England has forecast to be “the worst recession for 300 years.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable, and an insult to the millions of renters who overwhelmingly voted for Labour in the last election,” the statement said.

Thousands of Labour members have also signed an open letter supporting the cancellation of rent, covering of utility payments and halting of evictions caused by the crisis, in response to the party’s policy announcement.


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