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Working from home or living at work?

On March 23rd, 2020 UK was formally placed into lockdown. Those who were not key workers were asked to not work or to work from home. This meant the decades-old tradition of working professionals putting on suits and commuting into work to go into an office and sit at a desk for several hours a day ended. Abruptly.

At first, some rejoiced at this news. We all learned about the intricacies between Zoom and Microsoft Teams and most of us became pop-quiz experts. The concept of moving from your home to go miles away to do the same thing you could do from your couch seemed insane. Most of us also found that we work better in pyjamas and are never late when our bed is also our office. Long live the “Boffice” we cried!

However, as time went on, difficulties emerged for the working poor. Those who could leave their cramped city flat and run away to a big house in the country did. Oxford University found that during lockdown over 250,000 people left London to go to live elsewhere, many whom were under 30. Those who could upgrade their Wi-Fi did. Those who could create an “office” like environment with comfy chairs, a working desk, and several monitors, did. Those who could not – struggled.

Many young people realised that no garden, no living room, and several people using the same kitchen and bathroom were acceptable before Covid-19, but not during lockdown. Landlords profiteering from turning that pesky living room into a third, fourth or even fifth bedroom in a House of Multiple Occupancy were making homes unliveable in lockdown. After a few weeks – the “Boffice” was not as great as we thought it was. People were not working from home. They were living at work.

The property developer Pocket Living found that 37% of those in London who were living in shared accommodation, were living and working in their bedrooms during the lockdown. Many reported that this was affecting their mental and physical health.

Participants reported issues like “noise, lack of work surfaces, and privacy” that severely affected their ability to work. Of those asked, 46% of participants reported not having a suitable place to work. Now, after the first lockdown and as a result of these changes, the Independent reported that 70% of young people are feeling more anxious about the future as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year might be the first time that young people move out of London and other city centres on masse – or do not actually move there in the first place. At the beginning of the year, it was predicted that the number of young people living in their own private rented sector (PRS) was going to rise by over 1.3 million. Now, I would not be so sure.

But fear not landlords – help is at hand. A landlord’s best bet lies in effectively extending regulation of the minimum shared space required for houses in multiple occupation (HMO). Regulation should enhance the need for shared living spaces. Young renters need to have space in order to live and work in separate and private areas. Ensuring shared living spaces are available would provide the stability and space young people need to be efficient and productive at work.

By creating living spaces that are living and working friendly – landlords will ensure that they can keep their tenants in good mental and emotional health, and ensure their properties are occupied. It is not a huge amount of effort – but it will be well received by tenants thrice over. As young people find themselves in a new working environments and central offices become a thing of the past – landlords should act now to ensure a good relationship with their tenants for the future and the “New Normal”.

Additionally, for those unlucky enough to be on the ever-growing list of industries impacted by Covid-19 and find themselves now on furlough or in a tough job market, landlords should allow late or partial rent payments. The stress of renting as a young person is high enough, and a little flexibility from landlords would go a long way.

The “New Normal” does not have to be all bad for young renters. Instead – tenants and landlords must act together to ensure better working and living conditions. There should always be a difference between working from home and living at work and with a little communication and adjustment, better housing is possible.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Cathleen Clarke</span></strong>
Cathleen Clarke

Cathleen Clarke is a youth campaigner and Labour Party activist. She is currently running for Chair of Young Labour and works for a migrants’ rights charity.

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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.