The government is still grappling with the COVID-19 epidemic which, by all measures, is going to have a drastic impact on people's lives and the economy.
Two days ago (which we're sure you'll agree feels like a lifetime) Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson announced a raft of new measures to relieve stress on businesses. Homeowners were also told that there will be a three-month “mortgage holiday” where those who can’t pay their mortgages because of layoffs or business struggles can defer payments.
While many of these new measures were welcome, there seemed to be one glaring omission: renters.
At this point, there was no mention of a “renters' holiday” for the millions of British people who don’t own their own home.
Lots of people expressed anger and frustration at still having to pay rent, despite landlords being given a “mortgage holiday”.
@mrjamesob if you get a chance to speak to one of those minister bods. Can you please ask them, if my landlord gets… https://t.co/dtzKGL4cj7
Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pressed Johnson on his plans for renters, saying that they must be protected as a public health measure.
Johnson responded by saying that legislation will soon be introduced to make sure that no one is evicted as a result of coronavirus. He also said his government will avoid "pass[ing] on the problem" by "taking steps to protect other actors in the economy".
Housing associations also announced that they will not evict tenants who are affected by the virus and fall behind on rent payments. This was confirmed by Kate Henderson of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations in England.
.@BorisJohnson just said he would legislate to end no-fault evictions of tenants, presumably for at least as long a… https://t.co/t0vD7YIc6T
But it still wasn't clear exactly what was going to happen with regards to renters being expected to pay rent.Will they get a holiday too?
Now the government has announced that there will be a three-month ban on all evictions, meaning that renters won't be able to be evicted if they've lost their jobs and are unable to pay rent during this time.
Responding to Johnson’s evictions announcement, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis said in a statement:
It’s reassuring to hear that the government is planning to bring forward legislation to protect renters during the COVID-19 outbreak.
People renting need to know that, in these uncertain times, they’ll be able to keep a roof over their head come what may.
This possibility of not being able to pay rent because of illness or lack of work as a result of coronavirus is understandably worrying people.
Can people who've not paid a full three months' rent be evicted as soon as this three-month eviction ban is over?
Will the eviction ban be extended?
What happens to people who are left in debt from owing rent to landlords (who've just had a mortgage holiday)?
Among the most contentious parts of the government's new guidelines is a section which reads:
At the end of this period, landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan...The government will also issue guidance which asks landlords to show compassion.
Understandably, people on social media aren't exactly comforted by the idea that they're currently relying on landlords to "show compassion".
https://t.co/dg3w5FjfeS - this is great for landlords and home owners, but there should be statues/guidelines for r… https://t.co/an4D6vsUva
lol yeah, good luck preaching consequence-free "compassion guidance" to my old rich-by-inheritance landlord, who (o… https://t.co/E84BdI1ebc
— Jennifer Schaffer-Goddard (@Jennifer Schaffer-Goddard)
So what are housing organisations saying?
Shelter welcomed the announcement. Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, said:
News the government is to legislate [to] stop renters being evicted from their homes during the coronavirus crisis will come as a great relief to many people. Without this decisive action tens of thousands of renters would have faced eviction in the coming months, while potentially trying to isolate and protect themselves and others.
The government has done the right thing. There are 20 million renters in England who will benefit from this protection – which is a vital emergency measure to keep people safe and in their homes.
But others, including Generation Rent, warned that the guidelines don't go far enough. Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent, called on the government to offer rent relief:
We have already heard from renters who are losing work as a result of the outbreak and have been given eviction notices. This announcement will give them welcome short-term respite.
But there is nothing here that will help renters who get into arrears to find the money to pay them off at the end of their landlord's mortgage holiday. Levels of housing benefit have fallen behind market rents and new claimants face delays in getting payments. To ensure renters don't fall into debt, the government now needs to offer rent relief.
The London Renters Union was far less impressed. Amina Gichinga from the union, which represents thousands of renters across the city, called on the government to suspend rents:
The government is preventing many people from working while forcing them to carry on paying rent. While landlords are being given a mortgage holiday, millions of renters who are losing their incomes will clock up huge amounts of debt to their landlord. If landlords can get a payment holiday, why won’t the government also implement a suspension of rent payments?
Why should landlords be allowed to profit from this crisis? Landlords are being just asked to defer their rental income, but many renters are losing their incomes altogether. We must suspend rents, not defer them. Otherwise the end of the coronavirus crisis could mean the beginning of an evictions crisis.
Ultimately there's still lots of unanswered questions relating to the long-term consequences of people not being able to pay rent.
Both the Tories and Labour had pledged to ban “no-fault” evictions (Section 21 of the Housing Act) in their 2019 manifestos. But it is a Section 8 order (which is normally triggered when tenants owe eight weeks or more of rent) which is the normal mechanism for evicting tenants who haven't been able to pay, and are therefore seen as "at fault" under the law.
It would seem that a key point of contention will be if, after the three-month eviction ban, renters who can't pay because of coronavirus are seen as "at fault" under Section 8 or not. And how the government will respond to people potentially being in debt if they have to pay backdated rent to keep a roof over their heads when employment has fallen through.
If you're worried about paying rent, Shelter and Citizens Advice might be able to help you with free advice. We'll bring you more information when we know it.