Written evidence submitted by London Renters Union [IOC 153]
Established in 2018, the London Renters Union represents thousands of renters from across London. Our Covid-19 online resources have been accessed by 30,000 people since the start of the pandemic. More than 100,000 people have signed our petition calling for a suspension of all rent and demanding further protections for renters. Evidence we have collected shows that:
● Despite the government urging landlords to show “compassion” many agents and landlords are still telling people that rent is due in full, often harassing them and telling them that rent must be prioritised over other outgoings.
● When tenants ask landlords or estate agents whether they have applied for or can pass on the benefits of any mortgage holiday, many are told that government support cannot be passed on in this way.
● Londoners already spend more than 50% of their incomes on rent and sometimes as much as 70%. Many Londoners who have lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus pandemic now face having to rebuild their lives with crippling rent debt and are at risk of eviction as soon as the temporary freeze on evictions is lifted.
● Because of this fear of crippling rent debt and eviction, many renters feel they have no choice but to break social distancing guidelines and go out to work so they can continue to pay their rent, putting themselves and others at risk of infection.
● Millions of renters are being forced to choose between food and rent.
● Landlords and estate agents are continuing to evict tenants, including by claiming that renters on assured shorthold tenancies are lodgers with fewer rights.
The Conservative 2019 manifesto pledged “a better deal for renters”, but the government has left renters to fend for themselves. Current government policy will lead to a chaotic rent debt and evictions crisis. We urge the government to:
● Suspend rent payments
● Cancel rent debt
● Make the evictions ban permanent
● Introduce rent controls that bring the rents down
Rent and rent debt
Despite the government urging landlords to show “compassion” many agents and landlords are still telling people that rent is due in full. The government’s guidelines make it clear that landlords can issue eviction notices to renters who enter into rent debt. Eviction notices can still be issued and possession proceedings will begin as soon as the temporary deferral of evictions is lifted.
Research by Opinium shows 6 in 10 renters have faced reductions in their income due to Coronavirus. Many self-employed people, zero-hours workers and recently unemployed people have not and will not benefit from the new government protections. Many renters already spend 60% or even 70% of their income on rent, so even if they are entitled to receive 80% of incomes from the new government schemes, they will have little left over for food and other essentials.
While the government has claimed that ‘no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home,’ the evidence we have collected from thousands of renters show that many have either been threatened with eviction or are now far more likely to be evicted as a result of current government policy.
Evidence we have gathered from thousands of our members and other renters shows that:
● While some renters who have written to their landlord using our template letter asking for a rent reduction and received a positive response, many more have received an unsympathetic response. The government’s guidelines are leaving landlords and estate agents free to harass renters to pay in full. This is causing significant distress to large numbers of people.
One south London estate agent wrote to a group of our members saying “your basic needs are essential however rent is still due”.
One hospitality worker who lost their income due to Covid-19 was told she would be evicted within a week as she had not been able to pay her rent.
The government’s policy of encouraging “compassion” and then leaving renters to try to negotiate with landlords who have a huge amount of power over their lives is a dismal failure.
● Renters facing a loss of income during the Coronavirus pandemic are now at risk of being driven out of their community. The average private rent for a one-bedroom home in London is higher than the average for a three-bedroom home in every other English region. Rents in London have risen three times faster than incomes since 2010. Renting a two-bed in Newham typically costs around £1,400 per month, which is more than 60% of the average local income, leaving little for food and other essentials. One member in our Newham branch said:
“Me and my family have been living in this house for 10 years and the rent has doubled in that time. I’m a freelancer and I’ve lost all my work because of the Coronavirus pandemic. My landlord won’t give me a rent reduction and I’m worried that this will tip me over the edge and mean I’m forced out of my community. This has severely impacted by mental health. I’m organising in the union to help fight for greater protections for renters.”
● Many Londoners now face having to rebuild their lives with crippling rent debt. As noted above, many renters were already stretched to breaking point on their pre-pandemic incomes, but now their incomes have been (in many cases, dramatically) reduced. Furthermore, according to the most recent English Housing Survey, 63% of all renters have no savings. Forcing renters to shoulder exorbitant rent costs for months in which they have little or no income, will leave them buried under a mountain of debt.
● Because of this fear of crippling rent debt, many renters feel they have no choice but to break social distancing guidelines and go out to work so they can continue to pay their rent, putting themselves and others at risk of infection.
● Millions of renters face difficult choices between having enough to eat or paying rent. The Food Foundation has conducted research showing that 1.5m Britons have gone a whole day without food during the Coronavirus pandemic. We frequently hear about people having to cut back on food and other essentials because they feel pressure to pay as much rent as they can at this time.
● When tenants ask landlords or estate agents whether they have applied for or can pass on the benefits of any mortgage holiday, they are told that government support cannot be passed on in this way. One of our members was told by an estate agent that while their landlord has received a mortgage holiday, “we need the rents paid as per normal...as a business we rely on rents to pay all our costs, insurance and support our head office and also bank repayments”.
● Additionally, in many cases, landlords are demanding that tenants who have managed to secure some income support from government programmes direct that money - which is intended to fund basic living costs like food or medical expenses - fully towards rent. Government benefits designed to give some small protection from the worst of the crisis are being syphoned away by landlords to protect their bottom line.
Unless the government takes urgent action, we are heading into a chaotic evictions crisis, with a huge number of renters already behind on rent payments and at risk of eviction as soon as the temporary freeze on evictions is lifted. We believe that renters should be freed from having to make any rent payments during the coronavirus pandemic and should be protected from entering into debt to their landlord.
The government has stated that “no renters in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction.” However the evidence we have collected from renters shows otherwise. Government policy has not prevented landlords from issuing early eviction notices, threatening tenants with evictions, harassing tenants or provided protection from out illegal eviction.
Below are some examples of this:
● Some landlords have been evicting people by claiming that their tenants are lodgers, so not entitled to the same protections as tenants. For example:
○ We prevented the eviction of a member from Wandworth who had been told that she was a lodger, despite the fact that her landlord did not live in the property.
○ Another member, a trainee teacher was issued with an eviction notice as her landlord claimed she was a lodger.
○ Another member was issued with an eviction notice as the landlord claimed that the property needed to be used to house NHS key workers.
○ On the 1st April, one of our members was told by her landlord that the government's eviction ban had been lifted and was issued a 3 month eviction notice. The landlord attempted to justify this by claiming that the tenant was a lodger, even though the landlord does not live at the property. Despite the lockdown, this landlord went on to show people around the property and moved in new tenants during the lockdown.
In these cases it is clear that landlords have been issuing evictions through attempting to deceive their tenants.
● Many of our members are being harassed, threatened with eviction, and in some cases have been illegally evicted. For example:
○ In March, a member was illegally evicted after being unable to pay her rent as a result of coronavirus. She was harassed with aggressive messages from her landlord and decided to leave the property. We are now helping her pursue compensation for this illegal eviction.
○ A member in north London who was hospitalised and is now recovering from coronavirus has been told that if she doesn’t remove her belongings within 3 weeks her items will be removed, and that she would also be charged for the removal of her things. This would of course constitute an illegal eviction.
○ Another member is a property guardian in Tower Hamlets. Having lost her income due to coronavirus she is now being harassed by the property owner. Although she is an occupier, she is still protected by legislation preventing harassment. Despite this, the property guardianship company are entering her room on a daily basis, without permission or prior notice, despite the fact that she is shielding due to a health condition. The guardianship company insists that they do not need a court order to remove her, which would be an illegal eviction.
In all the examples above, it is clear that the government’s minimal action to-date on evictions is not sufficient. Despite the government urging landlords to show “compassion”, more needs to be done to ensure that landlords cannot threaten or carry out illegal evictions.
The government’s guidelines asking landlords to show compassion is negligent and does nothing in reality to protect renters. Many renters face significant losses to their incomes and have been left to fend for themselves by government policy.
We urge the government to suspend rent immediately. No rent payments should be due during the Coronavirus pandemic. This will allow renters to prioritise their basic needs, and to protect public health by not breaking the lockdown so they can work to afford rent.
Current government policy will lead to a chaotic rent debt and evictions crisis. Renters will not be able to rebuild their lives if they are burdened with months of crippling rent debt. Many renters will be rightly afraid of eviction and will continue to take risks with their health in order to pay off rent debt.
Legislation should be introduced that waives all rent debt accrued during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Conservative manifesto promised the abolition of ‘no fault’ evictions under Section 21 of the Housing Act, which is currently the leading cause of homelessness in the UK. Legislation should be brought forward immediately that abolishes Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions and suspends Section 8 evictions for rent arrears for 12 months.
This would help to avoid a chaotic rent debt and evictions crisis and ensure that renters do not have to be constantly worried about their housing and their ability to pay rent or about revenge evictions once lockdown ends.
It is generally accepted that anyone who has to pay more than one-third of their income on rent does not have access to affordable housing. The median housing cost for renters across London is 45% of income. Renting a two-bed in Newham typically costs 60% of the average local income, leaving little for food and other essentials.
Record numbers of people in the UK are now claiming universal credit, and the number is set to increase. As the government starts to pay an increasing proportion of private rented sector rents through Housing Benefit, rent controls must be introduced to help people live healthy and fulfilled lives and to protect the public purse.
Introducing rent controls so no one has to pay more than a third of their income on rent would also ensure that additional protections against evictions do not just encourage landlords to evict by putting up the rent or reclaim any rent lost during any rent suspension period. A recent YouGov poll shows that 74% of the public support rent controls.
D. Additional issues
Beyond the main suggestions outlined above, there are several other urgent issues for the government needs to address in order to guarantee the protection of all renters:
● End the five week wait for Universal Credit. All claimants should be paid from the start of their claim, with everyone automatically getting an advance payment without obligation to repay it once their claim is processed. The wait time for Universal Credit has consistently plunged people further into debt and caused hunger as well as problems paying rent. As applications soar, it is time to end this misery so people can safely self-isolate. The National Landlords Association has made similar suggestions on this front.
● No borders in housing. The government should put an end to ‘right to rent’ and nationality requirements for social housing, and abolish immigration status checks in licensing or enforcement regimes. There have now been two court rulings that have confirmed the government’s ‘right to rent’ legislation causes racial discrimation against migrants and people of colour. It currently takes BME people and migrants twice as long to find a home to rent as a white British person. We urge the government to follow the recommendation of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and put an end to this scheme.
● Safe homes. Many renters in London spend more than half their incomes on rent only to get cramped and poor quality housing in return. In fact, 1 in 5 privately rented homes in London do not meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard. The government cannot expect people to self-isolate in homes that are unfit for habitation. For this reason we propose that councils should be given extra resources to issue improvement notices and fine landlords that fail to make properties safe to live in.
● Build public housing and repossess empty homes. Speaking at the government’s daily press conference on 18th April, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick declared that he was “proud of the efforts of councils to help vulnerable people to secure accommodation for rough sleepers.” He went on to add that the government’s plan to protect rough sleepers has resulted in over 90% being offered safe accommodation.” We cannot go back to a situation where 5,000 people are sleeping rough on our streets at any given time and more than 88,000 children are living in temporary accommodation. More needs to be done to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are housed permanently. There are 22,000 empty homes in london — these homes should be made available as permanent housing to people facing homelessness. In addition, the government must invest in a huge public housing program as a key step towards ending the housing crisis once and for all and to ensure everyone can have a home in which they can live and flourish.