Hundreds of thousands of people could lose their homes next month because they have fallen into rent arrears since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a charity warns.
Research by Shelter shows that an estimated 227,000 private renters in England have fallen behind on their rent since March – often as a result of job losses and financial struggles during lockdown – meaning they could lose their homes when the government’s eviction ban ends on 23 August.
Ministers introduced a moratorium on eviction cases ahead of the coronavirus lockdown in March to stop people becoming homeless during the crisis. Last week, housing minister Lord Greenhalgh said that from 24 August this would end and landlords would be able to seek possession of properties in the courts.
Shelter’s findings, based on a YouGov survey of 1,058 private renters, weighted to be representative of England’s private renters using official statistics, also indicate that 174,000 private tenants have already been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent since March.
Under the current court system, anyone who accrues rent arrears of eight weeks or more can be automatically evicted, in addition to the risk of being subjected to a Section 21 “no fault” eviction, which allows landlords to evict tenants at short notice and without a specified reason.
The housing charity is warning that unless the government acts to protect the renters thrown into financial difficulty by Covid-19, judges will be powerless to stop them from losing their homes once the ban lifts.
One renter facing eviction is Jeanny, 48, who lives in Bournemouth with her three children. She was furloughed from her retail job at the start of the pandemic and is still unable to return, and because she has been unable to pay her rent on time her landlord has asked the family to leave the home they have rented for four years by 4 October.
“It was a complete shock. I thought my landlord would at least say ‘let’s talk’ about the rent before threatening me with eviction, when I told her I couldn’t quite pay my full rent after my pay was cut. Before the pandemic, I’d always paid my rent on time every month for the four years we’ve lived here,” Jeanny said.
“Being under all this pressure is having a massive impact on everyone in the family. It affects my sleep, it’s on my mind all the time. I talk about it with my older children, and we try and work out where we can get the money from to top up the rent.
“I’m already buying cheaper food and looking for other ways to cut back. It’s incredibly stressful. I don’t want it to come to an eviction through the courts. I don’t want my children to go through that.”
The YouGov polling indicates that the total number of private renters in arrears reached 442,000 adults (5 per cent) – double what it was in the same period last year – which Shelter said was only likely to increase as the furlough scheme draws to a close, which could see millions of people lose their jobs.
Nearly a third of renters – 2.7 million adults (31 per cent) – feel more depressed and anxious about their housing situation, with the same number saying they are having sleepless nights, according to the research.
Since the lockdown began on 23 March, one in four of the calls from private renters to Shelter’s emergency helpline and webchat service have been from people scared of losing their home, according to the charity.
With 10 sitting days left until parliament breaks for recess, and less than two months before the eviction ban lifts, Shelter is urging the government to ”keep its promise” that no one will lose their home because of Covid-19, by making small changes to the law to give judges the powers they need to halt automatic evictions.
Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, said: “The housing secretary promised no one would lose their home because of coronavirus. But the financial chaos of Covid-19 means that many private renters are in danger of being evicted when the current ban lifts. Unless he acts now, he will break his promise, and put thousands of renters at risk of homelessness.
“We know people have been doing whatever they can to pay their rent and keep their home safe. Despite this, the minute the evictions ban lifts, the 230,000 already behind with their rent could be up for automatic eviction if they’ve built up eight weeks’ worth of arrears. And judges will be powerless to help them.”
Chris Norris, policy director for the National Residential Landlords Association, said the vast majority of landlords had been doing “all they could” to keep people in their homes, adding: “Our recently published guidance supports tenants and landlords to hold discussions about how to address rent arrears and sustain tenancies.
“It is important though to distinguish between tenants affected by Covid-19 and those who were building rent arrears before lockdown, sometimes for several months and sometimes wilfully. When the courts restart hearing possession cases the latter should be the priority, along with instances where tenants are committing anti-social behaviour or domestic abuse.”
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A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it was “working with the judiciary to provide appropriate protection to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when proceedings start again”.
They added: “The government has taken unprecedented action to support renters during the pandemic and prevent people from getting into financial hardship. We have introduced the furlough scheme to protect jobs, provided over £6.5bn to strengthen the welfare safety net, and introduced higher local housing allowance rates to cover the lowest 30 per cent of market rents.
“We have also provided protections to renters that have meant no one has been forced from their home as a result of the pandemic.”