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Beyond Short-Termism: How to Fix the Covid-19 Renters Crisis

Resolution Foundation report demonstrates the inadequacy of the Government’s response to the renters crisis – it must go beyond its own short-termism, writes Jack Shaw.

In March the Government said that this pandemic was an opportunity to end rough sleeping for good. New research by the Resolution Foundation has made it clear that that won’t be the case unless the Government is willing to put protecting renters and tackling homelessness at the top of its domestic agenda – and it can only do so by legislating. 

At the end of October the Resolution Foundation published its report Coping with Housing Costs, Six Months On, based on a survey in September of 6,000 working-age adults across the country. This follows the same survey carried out in May, and provides a unique opportunity to view the pandemic through the lens of housing.  The findings are stark, if not all too familiar.

The basic tenet is that the safety net put in place at the beginning of the pandemic for private and social renters, as well as homeowners with mortgages, falls short of the support required to keep people from losing their homes. 

Comparisons between tenures show that, across multiple indices, renters are hit harder. Compared to homeowners with mortgages, renters – social and private – are more likely to have lost their job or been furloughed; be in arrears; cut back on other items, dip into savings or borrow to cover housing costs; be in receipt of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit; and be less certain about where they’re going to live in 12 months’ time.

Over time the need for homeowners with mortgages to draw on mortgage holidays has fallen, while their job certainty appears to have increased – only three per cent of people with mortgages reported job losses, compared with eight per cent in the private rented sector and seven per cent in the social rented sector respectively. 

It does not appear that the need for housing support for renters has receded as much as we had hoped over the same period. Fewer renters reported being on furlough in September compared to May – perhaps because some have returned to work – but more reported losing their job.

Likewise, the number of renters seeking – and being refused – rent reductions has remained relatively stable at around one in 20. The picture is nuanced, but there are several conclusions that can be drawn.  

First, the blow to households with mortgages has been softer during this pandemic. Second, not only have renters been hit harder, but they have also recovered more slowly. Third, the interventions put in place by the Government aren’t sufficient. At best, they delay homelessness, not prevent it. True, renters have benefitted from a ban on evictions, and an uplift in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates and Universal Credit (UC), but none of these are long-lasting.

The LHA rate rise itself follows a capricious rate freeze by the Government in 2016, which decoupled it from inflation. What that means is as inflation rises, LHA rates do not rise with it. This gives renters access to fewer and fewer properties, which has undoubtedly undermined the resilience of private renters who benefit from LHA during this pandemic. 

The uplift essentially returns LHA rates to pre-2016 levels, although in another blow the Spending Review has since revealed that LHA rates will be frozen in cash terms from next year – so rates will once again fall back below 30th percentile over time, pushing renters back to square one just as they’re running out of cash. The ban on evictions has already ended, and the UC uplift is due to end in April.

As the Government battles on every front – COVID, saving the economy, protecting public health, Brexit, a credible Opposition – I suspect the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ latest words in Parliament are more than a Freudian slip: they were by design.

On 30 November, when asked whether she would make the Universal Credit uplift permanent, Dr Thérèse Coffey pointed out to Parliament that “we can also make the effort to encourage people to go for vacancies.” With the number of vacancies down 35% this time last year notwithstanding, such nonsense in the face of evidence-based interventions that will support renters to hold onto their tenancy is the epitome of absurdity.

But do not take my word for it. Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree highlighted that up to 16 million people across several million households are at risk of losing the equivalent to £1,040 overnight if the UC uplift ends in April, a kick in the teeth for the lowest income families just as they’re recovering from the pandemic. Research from Shelter earlier this year also revealed that 322,000 renters were in arrears despite keeping up with their rent before the pandemic began. With landlords handing out notices of repossession, we are only months away from understanding the full impact inadequate support has had on renters.

So, where does that leave us? Above all, it leaves us angry – or at least it should do. As to where it leads us: to the Government’s front door. The safety net is holding – just – in the face of the pandemic. While it cannot be the solution for renters forever, for now it’s making a global pandemic more bearable.

Though the Government cannot even get short-termism right, it already needs to look long-term too, and that starts with taking control over the domestic agenda and legislating as it has promised. Ministers need to get on with the job and abolish Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – so called ‘no fault’ evictions which allow landlords to evict tenants without good reason – over 18 months since the promise was made.

The Government also needs to bring forward the Renters Reform Bill, which no doubt should have precedence over some of the smaller items on the legislative agenda, such as the licensing of jet skis last month. If, as the Bill says, its aim is to improve the “security for tenants in the rental sector, delivering greater protection for tenants and empowering them to hold their landlord to account”, then surely the best time is now, before that security all but evaporates?

The cost of renting has long outstripped people’s ability to pay rent. The Government should strengthen and lengthen interventions to support those most in need, but it should also abandon its short-termism and support existing interventions with legislation that looks toward the long-term. A failure to do so will force more renters out of secure, permanent accommodation, and into temporary bed and breakfasts.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jack Shaw</span></strong>
Jack Shaw

Jack is a Senior Policy Researcher for a Labour MP, has previously worked for the Local Government Association, and is a member of the London Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

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