Even before the coronavirus outbreak hit home earlier this year, private renters were facing sky-high rents – with little or no savings to fall back on. Once the pandemic took hold, this situation rapidly got worse, with lost income leading to widespread rent arrears and spiralling debt.
“The pandemic has exposed the scale of the renting crisis in the UK, ” Caitlin Wilkinson, policy manager at campaign group Generation Rent, tells Stylist.
“We hear daily from people who are in debt to their landlords and are terrified about losing their homes. This includes families with children who have been hit by the benefit cap, self-employed renters who couldn’t access the furlough scheme, and those who can’t claim anything at all due to their immigration status.”
Below, we answer your key questions on rented housing and coronavirus, with advice from campaigners at the heart of the issue. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re struggling but rest assured: help is at hand. Here’s how to protect yourself and find the support you need:
“Is the UK really facing a housing crisis this autumn?”
In a word: yes. Despite reassurance from housing secretary Robert Jenrick that “no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”, at least 20,000 households have been made homeless during the pandemic to date.
Even before the pandemic, 63% of renters had no savings at all, and almost half were just one paycheck away from losing their homes. Add in eye-wateringly high rent rates, especially in London, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
Now, many people who are unemployed because of the crisis have found themselves grappling with the benefits system for the first time. Activists say guidance is vague and confusing, and benefits such as universal credit or housing benefit rarely cover the full cost of rent in any case.
“What has the government done to help – and what more can it do?”
The government has introduced some measures to try and protect private renters, including a temporary eviction ban that lifts on 20 September.
It has also increased the notice period landlords must give their tenants to six months (more on this below) and have ruled that evictions are not enforceable during local lockdowns or over the Christmas period.
However, campaign groups argue that these measures do not go far enough.
Instead of putting the onus on landlords to protect tenants, Generation Rent is calling on the government to intervene with direct financial support for people who are behind on their bills due to coronavirus.
This would involve passing emergency legislation to further restrict evictions for rent arrears due to Covid-19, as well as making funds available for renters in debt.
Similarly Citizens Advice is campaigning for:
• Ring-fenced grants for renters already in receipt of government benefits, or those who would otherwise be eligible for benefits but have no recourse to public funds – to be distributed by local councils.
• Government-backed interest-free loans for other tenants who can afford to pay them back, such as those who have been furloughed or are struggling to pay their rent now but will be able to in the future.
“What should I do if the coronavirus crisis means that I can’t pay my rent?”
“It’s really important to speak to your landlord and tell them your situation,” says Amy Hughes, senior housing expert at Citizens Advice. “It might help to tell your landlord why you have fallen behind with your rent, for example, if you have been furloughed, or lost out on work.
“See if you can agree to a repayment plan to pay off your rent arrears. This would mean making smaller payments to your landlord over a longer period of time. Don’t offer to pay more than you can realistically afford.”
The folks at Shelter have provided a handy template letter for negotiating a rent reduction with your landlord during the coronavirus outbreak.
If your landlord doesn’t agree to a payment plan, you should start gathering evidence such as receipts for rent paid or any communications between you and your landlord.
If you get housing benefit or universal credit and you can’t pay your rent, it’s worth approaching your local council to ask about getting what’s known as a Discretionary Housing Payment to help cover costs.
You should also check that you’re receiving all benefits that you’re entitled to: whether you’re a mum, self-employed and so on.
“How much notice does a landlord have to give me right now?”
This measure will last until at least March 2021, and applies to all private renters. The only exceptions are cases involving anti-social behaviour, fraud, domestic abuse perpetrators, or rent in arrears of six months or more.
However, this notice period only applies to eviction notices served after the new regulation went through on 29 August 2020.
If you were served an eviction order before that date, this legislation doesn’t apply and you’ll need to seek legal advice to find out where you stand.
“I’ve been served notice on my flat: what are my next steps?”
“The restart of eviction proceedings will be very worrying for those tenants still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their finances,” says Hughes.
You should act quickly by seeking legal advice: Citizens Advice, Shelter or your local housing association are all organisations that can help. If you have been paying rent, you need to collect together a record of receipts and emails/any other communications between you and your landlord.
Even if you feel like you have no grounds to contest the notice, it’s worth getting it checked out from a legal point of view.
For one thing, there may be something technically wrong with the notice that’s served: and addressing that will buy you more time to arrange a plan B.
For another, landlords sometimes try to enforce conditions in contracts that are actually illegal or invalid (especially now, given confusion over recent changes in the rules due to coronavirus).
“What if my landlord is pressuring me to leave?”
It’s a criminal offence for a landlord to make you leave your rental without a notice or court order.
The same goes if they harass you or lock you out of your home, even temporarily.
“You can and should stay in your home, especially if you have nowhere else to stay,” reads advice from Shelter. “Get help from the council or the court if your landlord stops you accessing your home.”
“What should I do if I’m being threatened with bailiffs?”
Firstly it’s rare for an eviction notice to end up with bailiffs. This process will kick into play if you don’t move out by the date stipulated on an eviction notice.
Your landlord must then apply to court for a possession order, and if it’s granted, there’ll be a date set by which you’re required to give up possession of the property.
If you don’t comply, the landlord has to apply to the court for a warrant, which is executed by court bailiffs.
There are rules that govern each part of this protocol, which again is why it’s important for you to seek legal advice. For example, all bailiffs should send you a letter before they visit.
However, Citizens Advice campaigners are concerned that this guidance wasn’t followed even before the events of this year, and are calling for greater discretionary powers in court to protect tenants who are in arrears due to the pandemic.
If your eviction notice was set for a court hearing that was halted by the eviction ban, your landlord must serve a “reactivation notice” on both you and the court before proceeding further (after the ban lifts on 21 September). There’s likely to be a delay in court hearings as the courts make their way through a backlog of cases, too.