This weekend I went on holiday with my two sons and husband to Birmingham City Centre. Two nights in a just-the-basics hotel were required as I am having some building work done on my house, and was kicked out to allow the concrete to set for 48 hours. Ordinarily we would have stayed with friends or family, but as it is currently forbidden due to lockdown restrictions, we decamped to the city centre.
It was a novelty at first – who doesn't love even the most basic hotel room – but it was less fun on Monday morning at 6am, sorting out whose school uniform was whose from the bag we picked up from our local launderette, and searching for school shoes (which were in the car!).
After two nights I was done with our little staycation. As my kids tucked into breakfast bread rolls in ballooned plastic packets in the hotel foyer, I felt deep sadness at the realisation that hundreds of kids in my constituency have sometimes lived for up to a year in hotels or B&Bs that they couldn't call a home. Often staying in accommodation in a terrible condition – far worse than where we had been – these families have no money to go out to nice independent restaurants for dinner each night, and no money for even a service wash from the laundrette.
I worked with one family, now happily rehoused, who lived in B&Bs and roadside hotels for 18 months. They were forced to move on frequently and were sometimes being placed over 50 miles from their children’s school. Still, their dad got up at 5am and drove from Ludlow to Birmingham in time to get the kids to school each day, before he went to work himself. They had been evicted from their rental home by a landlord who wanted to sell, and so found themselves homeless. Between my office and their schoolteachers, we had a rota for helping the family of six to cook meals and do the washing. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been; I cannot imagine how on earth the kids were meant to progress at school on such little sleep, living in a place where it would be impossible to do homework.
This family’s life is not a rare one. As far as my constituency office is concerned, housing and homelessness is the single biggest issue our community faces. And that was the case pre-corona. Add a global pandemic which is pushing many out of work into the mix, and the threat of eviction rockets. The homelessness charity Shelter suggested that more than 170,000 private tenants had been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent, while 230,000 in England had fallen into arrears since the pandemic started.
For a period, thanks to pushing by charities and the Labour Party, the government instigated a ban on evictions. Now coronavirus cases are rising again, people are missing work because of local lockdowns and a poor testing regime, and the crisis is worsening – and at this moment the government felt it was the time to lift this protective ban, so that once again landlords will be able to apply for court orders to evict their tenants. Throw winter into that pot too, because everyone knows diseases and homelessness are better in the winter, right?
The government promised early on that no renter would lose their home because of coronavirus, but I can see absolutely nothing in place this week that allays fears of that exact thing happening. Labour’s shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, has been pushing the government to come up with a plan to allay a calamity. Labour has called for an extension on the eviction ban, if no credible plan can be put in place to protect renters. There has been no reply yet.
No one is suggesting that the eviction ban should last forever. But the families I meet need help now. Those with kids trying against the odds to study in a crowded room with five beds in it, and those parents preparing meals for their children in a B&B with only a kettle. The people who have lost their jobs, or whose jobs simply don’t pay enough to afford a house that they could live in. The families whose breadwinner has died. Ending the eviction ban without a plan to assist both tenants and landlords to maintain tenancies is simply madness; and the human cost, and cost to the taxpayer, will be huge.
But don’t worry – apparently bailiffs won’t be able to force their way into your home in places where there is a local lockdown, and have been asked not to force evictions over Christmas; which sounds about as charitable as a scheme from Scrooge. I wonder if I can rent a ghost to pop around to Robert Jenrick’s massive pad, or even buy a ghost a table at a Tory fundraiser, to help him see the reality.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley