Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick trumpeted last Friday that he was “helping to protect the most vulnerable renters” by extending the eviction ban.
To recap, the first, and reasonably comprehensive ban was initiated in March 2020, then extended periodically. This makes it sounds as though provisions were simply rolled forward, but the reality is far different.
The measures have been successively watered down at each extension until the protections we are left with are inadequate and exclude the most impoverished tenants.
A Shorter Reprieve
The latest extension lasts only four weeks, until February 21st. No justification is given for this, but no doubt the landlord class, including the many estate-owning MPs, will have had a role. It stands in contrasts to the eviction ban protecting corporations which continues until at least the end of March 2021.
Carry On Preparing
The eviction ban is no such thing. It is more accurately described as a ‘bailiff ban’. In March, all court proceedings were halted, but since September, landlords have been able to prepare and submit legal paperwork, ready for the bailiffs when restrictions are lifted again.
Another Big Hole
Two further key changes help landlords who want to evict for arrears. Previously, tenants had to accrue nine months arrears, excluding rent owed since March 2020. Now proceedings can be triggered on accrual of six months’ arrears covering any period. This allows inclusion of the latter eight months of 2020 when incomes were severely negatively impacted by government’s forced closure of some businesses.
The weakened protections only offer a brief respite, and then only for tenants with less than six weeks arrears, leaving vast numbers outside the reach of its provisions.
Evictions Despite Pandemic
Eviction proceedings have continued, albeit in reduced numbers, throughout the pandemic. There were always exemptions for domestic violence and anti-social behaviour cases, for example. But tenants have also been evicted solely for an inability to pay due factors outside their control.
Between March and September 2020, English and Welsh courts issued around 1,000 possession orders, and over 2,200 warrants. Some would have resulted in tenants being forced out without bailiff intervention. These numbers are small compared to the shamefully high 87,000+ repossession proceedings in 2019, but many represent individual tragedies.
No Due Process
Then there are all those evicted without due process – a number undocumented and unknown. Many tenants have little access to legal support, fear the consequences of a judicial battle, particularly after being threatened with potentially having to pay landlord legal costs, and are driven out. Inevitably, some land on the streets.
SHAC’s campaigning on evictions has sometimes prompted replies suggesting the country could not afford to lift the debt burden from struggling tenants. It is important therefore to put the debt in context.
Citizens Advice reports that at least half a million people carry arrears averaging £730 each, amounting to a total nationwide rent debt of around £360 million. This would be a small cheque compared to the £15bn allocated to support UK businesses by the Chancellor in April.
And not all support needs to come from the public purse. Large private, corporate landlords and the housing association sector both hold great reserves of wealth.
In England alone, for example, housing associations reported a pre-tax surplus of £3.5bn in 2019/20. The rent debt therefore represents a tiny proportion of this surplus. Nonetheless, despite the call to waive rents by SHAC and other housing groups, and despite their vast wealth, housing associations resolutely refuse to write off arrears.
Groups like SHAC are right to call for rent and service charge waivers, but are also prepared to go further. When landlords are allowed to send in the bailiffs, an alliance of groups are ready to mount eviction resistance and bailiff prevention. We will also continue to highlight the gross housing injustice that allows our homes to be used as cash cows, with human need coming a very poor second.
10 January 2021