Covid-19: Ministers urged to ban 'reckless' evictions over rent arrears

By Sinead Wilson
BBC News

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Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is being urged to ban "reckless" evictions of people in long term rent arrears in England as a result of the pandemic.

A group of MPs are calling for "urgent" action to prevent a new surge in homelessness in the coming weeks.

They say thousands of renters with six months of debts risk ending up on the streets - despite a £180m support fund.

Ministers have extended a ban on evictions several times - the current one is due to run out on 31 March.

The devolved governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have also taken action to prevent evictions.

A group of Labour, Green and Lib Dem MPs and three peers have written to Mr Jenrick to urge him to do more to protect people who have got into debt through no fault of their own.

'Financial insecurity'

They say the housing secretary watered down protections by no longer excluding debts accrued since the coronavirus crisis began, when he extended the eviction ban in February.

Previously, landlords were able to evict tenants for exceptional reasons only such as anti-social behaviour or extreme levels of debt.

The MPs are calling for protection in law for people who have built up six months of arrears during the pandemic because of lost income and now face being made homeless.

Labour MP Stephen Timms who's leading the campaign, says the "widespread financial insecurity" of renters across the country means many face "an immediate and direct risk of homelessness".

Among the measures his group is calling for are:

  • Amend Housing Act to protect renters who have lost income
  • Bring forward Renters Reform Bill to rule out "no-fault evictions"
  • Give local authorities a fund to provide grants to clear rent debt
  • Support landlords at risk of financial hardship
  • Help local authorities regulate the private rented sector

Half a million private tenants in the UK are behind with their rent, according to research by Citizens Advice.

Budget measures?

The average amount owed is more than £700, the charity says, and one-in-four private renters in arrears have been threatened with eviction or cancellation of contract by their landlord.

There is speculation Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce measures in Wednesday's Budget to provide further grants and loans to help clear rent arrears.

But some campaigners say this will trap tenants in a spiral of debt.

Groups such as the London Renters Union say debts should be cleared and landlords prevented from taking the cash and evicting tenants anyway.

Polly Neate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, said while the eviction ban has "bought many worried renters a few more weeks in their home" it does not not solve the "looming crisis".

"Shelter's services are inundated with calls from people and families, frightened about losing their homes. Many are forced to choose between eating and paying rent - the devastating impact of a pandemic that nobody asked for," she said.

"Without action, this rent debt crisis could lead to rising homelessness. The government must give renters emergency grants to pay off 'Covid arrears', and stay safe in their homes."

The UK government says it has taken unprecedented action to support renters during the pandemic, and that measures have struck "the right balance between protecting tenants and enabling landlords to exercise their right to justice".