These are difficult times for all of us, but the risk of losing your home is surely too much to ask anyone to bear at this point. The government was right to recognise this when it instructed lenders to offer mortgage holidays to those who have lost work. Yet we know it is renters – not homeowners – who are most at risk of becoming homeless.
It is renters who have the lowest savings, who work in the most precarious jobs, who have the most exposure to the economic damage coronavirus is wreaking. Of the 8.5 million households renting in England, six million have no savings at all to fall back on during this crisis.
Millions of tenants breathed a sigh of relief last week when Boris Johnson promised a “complete ban” on evictions. But what the government eventually presented this week, at the eleventh hour, is nothing of the sort.
As it stands, renters will continue to see eviction notices dropping on their doormats despite the coronavirus pandemic and government lockdown. The only difference is that tenants now have three months, rather than two, before they can be taken to court and forcibly evicted by their landlords. We’ll see families being ordered to leave their homes at the very time the government has told people to stay put in order to save lives and protect the NHS.
Ministers are still calling this an “evictions ban”. Campaigners, renters unions and tenants say otherwise. The fact is that most eviction processes don’t end up anywhere near a courtroom. Tenants leave before they are pushed – particularly those who are served with a Section 21 “no fault” eviction notice.
Semantics aside, if someone gets an eviction notice, they are being evicted.
Already we are seeing landlords capitalising on this failure from government. We have seen some threatening to evict health workers because of their risk of exposure to coronavirus. And yesterday, the hotel group Travelodge evicted vulnerable homeless families from temporary accommodation, throwing them onto the street in the midst of a health crisis with just a few hours' notice. They were able to do this because ministers refused to ban evictions for those currently in temporary housing – including 125,000 children who can still be evicted without any notice.
Most alarmingly, some of the 1.5 million “high risk” people the government has told to stay at home for 12 weeks may already be facing eight-week eviction notices. These vulnerable people are now potentially facing homelessness at the peak of a pandemic because the emergency legislation doesn’t cover existing eviction notices. The housing charity Shelter estimates there are 20,000 evictions already underway, which can carry on.
The government’s U-turn on evictions is not just illogical, it is incredibly irresponsible, threatening the health and wellbeing of countless tenants.
It’s not only the physical risk of infection that matters. Consider the psychological impact of your family being served an eviction notice in the middle of a pandemic.
While homeowners and landlords benefit from mortgage holidays, renters are – yet again – treated like second-class citizens.
Struggling renters and struggling homeowners deserve the same support. That’s why Labour has called for a real package of support for renters, including a comprehensive six-month ban on all evictions and suspension of rents for those struggling to pay, with tenants free to repay their outstanding rent over a longer, manageable period.
We are also demanding a new housing safety net: a package of social security measures to ensure that housing benefit paid by the benefits system covers the true average costs of renting in different areas of the country, and better funding for councils to support people with their housing costs through this crisis.
Boris Johnson said multiple times in the House of Commons yesterday that the government is “putting its arms” around everyone in the country. But he is showing renters the cold shoulder. The prime minister has already broken his promise to 20 million renters: this is not an evictions ban, it just gives renters some extra time to pack their bags.
As we all retreat to our homes to stay safe, it is abhorrent that anyone could be forced out of theirs during this crisis.
Sarah Jones is Labour’s shadow housing minister and MP for Croydon Central