Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has hit back at commentators criticising the government’s implementation of a “complete ban” on evictions, after legislation presented to parliament effectively sought to extend the normal two-month notice period to three months for most renters.
The government presented amendments to its emergency Coronavirus Bill on Monday evening (23 March), which outlined the proposed legislation to protect renters, ahead of the bill going through its first and second readings in parliament yesterday.
As first revealed by Inside Housing, Social Housing’s sister publication, for most renters the legislative changes merely extend the statutory notice period from two months to three.
The bill looks to amend Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which concerns the recovery of possession on expiry or termination of assured shorthold tenancies (which are held by a large number of renters), changing the notice period from two months to three months.
Eviction notice periods for other types of tenancy, including ‘assured tenancies’ under the 1988 act, ‘secure’ and ‘flexible tenancies’ under Section 83 of the Housing Act 1985, and ‘introductory tenancies’ under Section 128 of the Housing Act 1996 are also extended to three months under the legislation.
In tweets yesterday, Mr Jenrick said: “Some highly misleading comments have been made about our commitment to suspend rental evictions during this national emergency.
“There can be no evictions as a result of [coronavirus] for three months – as promised – and we’ve got the power to extend this if we need to.
“We are extending all notices, regardless of the type of eviction, to three months. This means tenants will have three [months’] relief from any proceedings starting – mirroring the mortgage relief we are giving to landlords.
“And as renters might suffer financial hardship at different points, this applies on a rolling basis – so for anyone experiencing issues later down the line, they will be protected for three months.”
Mr Jenrick said that further guidance given to judges and bailiffs meant that it was also “extremely unlikely” any possession proceedings would continue during the period.”
Responding to accusations that the bill does nothing to support tenants with arrears payments, Mr Jenrick said: “Tenants and landlords will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, taking into account tenants’ individual circumstances.”
He also referred to extensions to Universal Credit and plans to pay up to 80 per cent of wages of employees unable to work during the crisis, announced by the chancellor on Friday (20 March). These, he said, made available “nearly £1bn of support for renters”.
He added: “We are keeping these measures under constant review and will be guided by the evidence. The [government] is clear – no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home.”
However, writing on Shelter’s website, Ruth Ehrlich, policy officer at the charity, said: “[Monday evening’s] legislation simply extends the notice period that landlords must give tenants – both social and private – before they can evict them through a court process. Renters who are currently in their notice period will still be expected to leave at the end of the period and can expect to be evicted through the courts if they do not.
“Many will leave their homes during the next three months. Moreover, the legislation does nothing to invalidate eviction notices served by landlords during the period dated for June.”
Referring to the government’s assertion that it reserves the power to extend the notice period again, she added: “[A] further extension of the notice period will do nothing for those already given notice.”
Shadow housing secretary John Healey said in a tweet on Monday that the prime minister had “broken his promise” to the country’s 20 million renters, adding: “This legislation does not stop people losing their homes as a result of coronavirus, just gives them some extra time to pack their bags.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was approached for comment.
Housing associations have been asking tenants and residents concerned about their ability to pay owing to issues relating to coronavirus to contact them.
Addressing the markets yesterday afternoon – as it announced it was closing all construction sites to protect workers and the wider public – L&Q said it would not take legal action for arrears “at this time”. But it said it was “reminding people that they should continue to pay their rent as normal because it helps to fund essential frontline services”.
It added: “We have instructed our specialist income teams to support customers who may be struggling to pay their rent by putting personal payment plans in place if needed, and providing enhanced support for those affected by coronavirus.
“We are also putting in place arrangements to help people access the emergency support that has been put in place by the government.”
In an interview with Social Housing published earlier this week, Jonathan Walters said that it was important to the credit profile of the sector, and housing associations’ ability to service their debts, that the government had not given residents blanket permission not to pay their rent.
“What’s important certainly from the credit worthiness of the sector is that what the government is not saying [to tenants] is you don’t have to pay your rent, it’s saying [to associations] you can’t evict people if they’re running arrears while this crisis is ongoing, and you should be helpful even once the crisis is over.”
He added: “I expect associations were being very reasonable even before the government announcement [of the ban on evictions]. I think they will continue to behave sympathetically, but they are also organisations that have debts to pay, so they need income as well.”
On Wednesday (18 March), Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, pre-empted the government ban on evictions with a statement saying: “We are confident that no housing association will do this, and want anyone affected by the outbreak to be reassured they will not be evicted.”
In Scotland, housing minister Kevin Stewart last week wrote to all registered social landlords and local authority housing directors asking them to work with government to ensure “no tenant is evicted because of any financial hardship suffered as a result of coronavirus”.
Major Scottish provider Wheatley Group told Social Housing on Thursday (19 March) that it was urging customers who are affected by coronavirus due to illness or self-isolation, and who are worried about the impact it will have on paying their rent, to get in touch.
Wheatley’s director of finance Steven Henderson said: “We will do absolutely everything we can to help them through any difficulties caused by the coronavirus situation, including their ability to claim any relevant benefits.
“We will support each customer according to their individual circumstances and have a wide range of support available. We wouldn’t evict people who are in rent arrears as a direct result of coronavirus.
“Our message to tenants is the sooner customers get in touch with us, the more we can do.”
But Mr Henderson urged the UK government to scrap the five-week delay on new claims to Universal Credit, adding that “we must go further to protect people through this difficult time”.