Unions and renter groups call for urgent action on rent debt crisis

Mar 1, 2021 | News

Trade unions, tenant unions and housing organisations have today written to the government urging action to protect the 840,000 renters who are behind on their rent due to Covid from eviction. 

The signatories include leaders of trade unions Unite, Unison, NEU, GMB, IWGB and CWU, tenant unions London Renters Union, Greater Manchester Housing Action, Camden Federation of Private Tenants and ACORN, and groups campaigning on housing policy such as New Economics Foundation and Generation Rent. 

A loophole to the eviction ban introduced by the government on February 8 means that tens thousands of renters who owe more than 6 months rent are now at imminent risk of eviction. 

The letter comes in the context of calls by the landlord lobby for grants and loans to help clear rent debt. The letter (full text below) urges the government to ban evictions on rent arrears grounds, scrap Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions and ensure that any financial support to help clear rent debt is targeted at landlords in real risk of financial hardship and doesn’t result in public money being handed over to millionaire landlords.

Full text of letter

Dear Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP,

Amidst the upheaval of the last year, for the UK’s private renters who have lost their job or had their incomes slashed in the pandemic, one thing hasn’t changed: the staggering rent bill at the end of the month. In a world where pandemics look set to become more common, standing by while housing becomes ever more insecure carries real and urgent risks for public health. Secure, affordable housing has a vital role to play as part of our civic immune system. But in order for this to happen, the government needs to redress the current imbalance in Covid-related financial support, which has largely flowed to landlords rather than renters. 

Britain’s private renters have been one of the groups hit hardest by job losses and furloughing during the coronavirus crisis. One in three private renters have lost income because of the pandemic, and now data suggests that 840,000 renters are behind on their rent. 19% of the UK population rent privately, and a third of them were in poverty before the pandemic. Without swift action, many renters will be unable to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus, homelessness and the misery of severe and perpetual indebtedness. 

The government knows that eviction and homelessness leads to increased Covid transmission and preventable death. People who have no secure home cannot keep themselves isolated, distanced or in decent health, as public health bodies such as the British Medical Association have pointed out. The government must act now to prevent the current rent debt crisis from leading to large-scale evictions and homelessness that will impact those who are already the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The cost of renting was already rising significantly faster than incomes before the pandemic. Many renters who have lost income over the last year will simply be unable to make up missed payments. This is especially the case for people in precarious work, on low incomes, or trying to make ends meet on universal credit. Migrants and people of colour have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and are also more likely to be in significant rent arrears. The mental and emotional strain of living with mounting, unavoidable debts shouldn’t be underestimated: half of UK adults in unmanageable debt are also living with mental ill-health. 

Government action must resolve rent debt in a way that shares costs fairly between landlords and taxpayers. Landlords have already received significant financial support from the government over the past 12 months. Stamp Duty Land Tax has been slashed for new property purchases, including for buy-to-let investments, while the Bank of England’s base rate of 0.1% has further fuelled property price rises. Buy-to-let landlords have been eligible for mortgage holidays, but have not been required to pass these on to tenants in the form of a rent holiday. Analysis shows that 45% (£2.7bn) of spending on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was used to pay rent between March and October 2020. Half of private rented sector tenancies are let by the 17% of landlords with five or more properties.

In light of this, we urge the government to: 

  • Amend the Housing Act to ban evictions on rent arrears grounds for people who have lost income because of the pandemic and encourage landlords to write-off rent debt.
  • Provide financial support to clear rent debts, targeted to landlords most at risk of serious financial difficulty. Generation Rent have proposed landlords be able to claim up to 80% of lost rental income, mirroring the protection given via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Funding should prioritise those with a mortgage on their rental property, or without other income or savings, and be contingent on them upholding their legal and contract obligations to their tenants. 
  • Urgently bring forward the Renters Reform Bill so that renters struggling to cope with the pandemic do not face ‘no-fault evictions’.
  • Set out a strategy to tackle the long-term unaffordability crisis in the rented sector. 

Yours, etc

Amina Gichinga, Coordinator, London Renters Union
Allison Fewtrell, Communications and Campaigns Officer for Greater Manchester Tenants Union
Nick Ballard, Head Organiser, ACORN
Robert Taylor, Organiser, Camden Federation of Private Tenants
Larissa Kennedy, National President, National Union of Students
Miatta Fahnbulleh, Chief Executive, New Economics Foundation
Christina McAnea, General Secretary, Unison
Unite the Union
Warren Kenny, Acting General Secretary, GMB Union
Henry Lopez, General Secretary, Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain
Vik Chechi-Ribeiro, Executive committee, National Education Union
Dave Ward, General Secretary, Communication Workers Union
Matthew Fulton, Regional Officer, NASUWT
Alicia Kennedy, Director, Generation Rent
Jacky Peacock, Director, Advice4Renters
Portia Msimang, Project Coordinator, Renters Rights London
Ben Reeve-Lewis, Strategic Case Manager, Safer Renting
Chief Executive, Anela Anwar, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust
Anya Martin, Director, Priced Out

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