After being furloughed from her job as a cleaning manager during lockdown, Denise (54)* is fearful about what the future holds. Her rent and bills add up to £1,000 which leaves her with just £150 a month for groceries, so she has had to rely on her local food bank.
“My landlady keeps harassing me as she wants me out,” says the mother-of-one. “I asked her if we could come to an agreement on the rent while we saw what happened. She went ballistic and demanded I pay it all. I’ve managed to keep paying in full but she’s still on at me to get out. You’re always one step away from eviction.”
Since March, Denise has been able to take some comfort from the protections provided by the government at the beginning of lockdown. As the economy ground to a halt, evictions were banned in England and Wales, allowing some breathing space for tenants who have struggled to pay the rent. But that protection is soon to come to an end in just over two weeks.
From 24 August, private landlords will be able to go to the courts to start eviction procedures, prompting concern from housing groups that there could be a rush of cases which could eventually lead to a spike in homelessness.
How did we get here?
The government ban on evictions was initially supposed to last for three months, but was extended to August as the huge impact of the pandemic became apparent. Announcing the extension, housing minister Robert Jenrick tweeted “no one will be evicted from their home this summer due to coronavirus”.
The measure affects millions of people. Currently, there are eight million renters in the UK, of whom 4.5 million have private landlords, while the remainder rent from social landlords such as councils and housing associations.
When the extension ends, the government has said it wants the courts to be a last resort and landlords to “exhaust all possible options” before considering eviction. These include agreeing flexible rent payment plans.
But there are concerns that tenants who have fallen behind on their bills may be in danger of losing their homes.
“I’ve been hearing many, many stories of rent increases, threatened evictions and more,” says Martyn James of complaints website Resolver.
“From the landlord perspective, some tenants have stopped paying rent over lockdown – breaking contracts - and that’s led to some properties potentially facing repossession.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of homeless charity Shelter, says at least 170,000 people have already been threatened with eviction by their landlords, according to a poll.
“We fear this is only going to get worse when the eviction ban lifts, the furlough scheme ends and the recession bears down,” she says. “Almost 230,000 private renters have fallen behind on their rent since March, which makes them far more vulnerable to eviction.”
The lobby group Generation Rent estimates there will be 30,000 private sector evictions in the courts when the system comes live again on August 24, based on last year’s figures. It is expected that there will be a rise in the number subsequently.
“The government has to renew the moratorium on evictions, at least where the landlord has no grounds, or where arrears have been caused by coronavirus,” says Dan Wilson Craw from the group.
“The big increase in evictions will arise from tenants, who have lost income, getting into rent arrears. Even though the government has increased the local housing allowance, the rates will not be enough to cover the rent for most renters, particularly in expensive places like London, and many people aren’t eligible, particularly if their visas give them no recourse to public funds.”
The London Renters Union says the courts will not be prepared for the large number of cases expected when the ban is lifted.
“While the ban was a necessary piece of emergency legislation, the fact remains that it could not be ending at a worse moment,” says Resolver’s James. He echoes calls for it to be continued while the economic effects of the pandemic are still being felt so strongly.
“Extending the ban on evictions into 2021 would bring some much-needed respite through the really challenging months ahead,” he says. “But this needs to be combined with support for landlords whose tenants are not paying, leaving them facing repossession. So a repossession ban during the same period would also be required, along with support for landlords whose tenant-induced rent arrears are not at fault.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not comment on calls for an extension of the scheme. It says: “We will provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when proceedings start again. New rules will require landlords to provide more information about their tenants’ situation with regards to the pandemic when seeking an eviction, with judges able to adjourn a case if this information isn’t provided.”
* Not her real name
What to do … the key points
The rules vary depending on the types of tenancy agreement but landlords must follow a specific process to legally evict someone. “If you receive a notice to quit, or the landlord is harassing you to leave, then seek help from a renters union, or legal advice provider,” says Wilson Craw.
Martyn James says there are key points of advice for renters:
• If behind in rent and the end of a contract is looming, contact the landlord or estate agent to pre-empt what may happen.
• If you are in arrears and a payment plan has been agreed, ensure that it is in writing and agree timescales for when the rent will be repaid.
• Claim for Universal Credit if you have been made unemployed. Rent payments go directly to you and not the landlord.
• Debt charities, such as StepChange, are available to help with advice on dealing with your creditors, putting together plans on what can be afforded and how cash can be freed up to stay afloat.
“If a landlord serves a tenant with an eviction notice, they should stay put for now,” says Polly Neate. “The courts are not going to evict anyone while the evictions ban is in place, and even after that landlords will have to follow proper procedure – they can’t just kick people out.”
She adds that landlords must give tenants written notice to leave in line with the latest government legislation, and it’s only when the notice period expires can they apply to the courts.
“Please don’t struggle alone. Anyone who is threatened with eviction or worried about losing their home when the ban lifts can contact Shelter for free and expert help, and to find out what their options are.”