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Coronavirus: the poor must not be made to pay for the crisis

It seems likely that one of the groups that the Coronavirus pandemic is going to hit hardest is private tenants. The government’s commitment to do ‘whatever it takes’ appears not to apply to them.

One of the biggest policy fanfares since the crisis began was their trumpeted ‘ban on evictions’. It was a triumph of spin over substance because all they did was was extend the normal period it takes to evict tenants for arrears, adding in a rather soggy new ‘pre-action protocol’. People quickly grasped that this would just store up problems for a later avalanche of cases – unless the policy is extended, the avalanche will start at the end of June. It is an inadequate policy response to the huge additional housing problems being created for private tenants by rampant unemployment, reduced hours and furloughing at 80% wages.

While we wait for the ‘eviction ban’ to be extended or otherwise, an unknown number of private tenants are unable or significantly less able to pay their rent, including those on housing benefit or Universal Credit which only meets part of the rent. Given how high rents are, their debt will rise rapidly and quickly become unmanageable. For many there is little prospect of relief: the economic crisis arising from Coronavirus could last years not just the few months of lockdown. A survey for Shelter estimated that 1.7 million private renters fear losing their jobs this summer. This is a timebomb, not just for tenants but also for landlords and, if homelessness results, for the State.

In the absence of any new policy from government, Labour’s new Shadow Housing Minister Thangam Debbonaire set out a ‘five point plan’ to tackle rent debt. This involves 1) extending the pause to evictions, probably to six months (when other measures should be in place); 2) offering more legal protection to people who got into arrears due to Covid; 3) allowing tenants ‘at least 2 years’ to pay back any arrears accrued during the crisis; 4) giving tenants greater protection from bankruptcy due to arrears; 5) making improvements to Universal Credit to help people pay their rents.

Of course it is right that avoiding evictions should be the top immediate priority. The government seems likely to extend the ban beyond the end of June, but it has not said so yet. The weakness of Labour’s position lies in ‘two years to pay off debt’. This is not a holding position that can be addressed later: the debt is being incurred now and the issue must be tackled now before it is too late.

The policy has not gone down well in many Labour and tenant circles and there are calls for Labour to back a suspension of rent payments to mirror the mortgage holiday. If postponing rent simply creates debt for the tenant, cancelling rent passes the cost on to landlords. As a slogan, ‘make the landlords pay’ has an attraction on the left. I have never supported private renting as a tenure for people on low incomes, but making the sector even more volatile by denying landlords rental income will create conflict and more landlords will look to either remove tenants by any means or to escape from the sector. Good, some people will say to the latter, but this would not be the planned contraction I would like to see, and chaos will have bad outcomes for tenants. And there is an argument that government will end up paying anyway because it would be contrary to human rights legislation to deprive landlords of their legitimate income.

Two principles should guide Labour’s response. First, private tenants should not be left in debt due to Coronavirus. Second, and related, it is the responsibility of the State to ensure that tenants have the means to pay their rent and not become homeless. Some are arguing that Labour should only propose pragmatic policies that the government might accede to. But Labour’s analysis also shapes and informs public and media opinion, and at the moment Labour’s message seems to be that private tenants should have to repay their Covid debts.

So, what policy would help tenants pay their rent NOW rather than slide into debt? Housing benefit used to do this and could do it again. It is a known system and would not have to be invented from scratch like the government’s job protection schemes. HB should pay 100% of people’s rent within reasonable limits by removing the freezes, caps and other restrictions. For those on Universal Credit the system would have to be amended to incorporate the principle of paying 100% of rent through the housing component. It could cater for people put out of work completely, people who face reduced hours, and people who are furloughed at 80% of previous income.

Reinventing housing benefit would mean: Landlords would get paid, there would be no crisis of evictions, no explosion of harassment, and no long term threat to supply;  Tenants would avoid large debt and its terrible consequences; and the State would help people in genuine distress due to the Covid crisis and avoid future homelessness. The cost would fall to government and they would be doing ‘whatever it takes’. Labour is halfway to the policy already with its proposals to reform Universal Credit.

When housing benefit was introduced – by the Tories in the 1980s – they accepted the principle that the State should take responsibility for ensuring that tenants can pay their rent whatever their circumstances. This was not through generosity, but part of their ideological shift towards the marketisation of housing: reducing subsidy to ‘bricks and mortar’ (which kept rents low) necessitated increasing income support to enable tenants to pay much higher rents. It was the policy known by the shorthand of ‘letting housing benefit take the strain’. Their deregulatory approach led to the resurgence of private renting that has carried on ever since. It is a free market system but with huge costs for the taxpayer. But it is suited to helping in the current crisis.

Cameron and Osborne, even more right wing than Thatcher, hated the idea of a benefit that covered all of the rent. Under austerity, an endless series of restrictions, caps and freezes forced millions to use a large slice of their money for other things, like food, to pay their rent. Many couldn’t do it, so eviction from a private tenancy has become the most common cause of homelessness. But these policies can all be reversed, and it is not an extreme or fanciful position to call for HB to take the strain.

The idea is not dissimilar to that proposed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in the USA. She has proposed cancelling rent and mortgage payments with landlords and mortgage holders having their losses covered by Federal Government. That solution fits the USA – where 31% of Americans could not pay rent this month – but the housing benefit approach fits the UK circumstances better. The principle that it is the State’s responsibility is the same.

Labour’s policy must be driven by a simple rule. The poor paid for the global financial crash. They must not also be made to pay for the global pandemic.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

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