In a last-minute U-turn, the government decided on Friday 21 August to extend the current eviction ban by a month. The ban had been due to end on Monday 24 August after being in place for five months, but the extension means that courts in England and Wales now won’t hear any repossession cases until 20 September.
The government has also extended six-month notice periods for evictions until at least 31 March 2021, as many suspected it would.
Why was the ban put in place?
The eviction ban came in at the height of the early-pandemic panic in March, as the government raced to try and protect the most vulnerable people in society. Rough sleepers were brought off the streets, benefits were beefed up, and incomes were temporarily protected through the furlough scheme and other grants. Among these measures, the government also acted to protect people from eviction. They extended the notice period for repossessions to six months, asked mortgage providers to offer mortgage holidays to buy-to-let landlords (allowing them in turn to give their tenants rent holidays), and instructed the courts to stop hearing eviction cases. The overriding principle was that no-one should lose their homes due to COVID-19.
While the darkest days of lockdown are hopefully behind us, we’re still living in an uncertain world – as our news feed of ever-evolving travel restrictions and local lockdowns never ceases to remind us. With the furlough scheme winding down, businesses both large and small are starting to go bust or prune staff, and the government obviously feels people are still too vulnerable to risk lifting the ban.
What are the knock-on effects of the extension?
While the extension to the eviction ban does protect people made vulnerable due to coronavirus, it also stops the courts from being able to hear more urgent cases. For example, some people may have stopped paying rent well before COVID-19 landed. Tenants who were served with eviction notices in January may still be in situ, and by the time the eviction ban extension expires, they might not have paid rent in nearly a year. That’s a big hit for landlords, many of whom will have mortgages, agent fees and maintenance costs to pay.
There’s also the question of antisocial behaviour. Local authorities have relatively limited powers to deal with this, so they often tend to rely on landlords – whose only real sanction is eviction. This means that since the start of the year there hasn’t been much anyone can do about antisocial tenants, and some neighbours’ lives will have been made a misery as a result – not to mention potential damage to properties.
How does the government propose to deal with these issues?
As he announced the extension, housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised that when the courts do go back to hearing possession claims, they will ‘rigorously prioritise’ to make sure the most urgent cases are heard first. This includes cases involving antisocial behaviour or domestic violence. Instances where a tenant is vastly in arrears may also qualify, though the government guidance implies that a tenant will need to have stopped paying rent for a year before it is considered a priority case.
Are rolling extensions to the ban really the answer?
Industry bodies, homelessness charities, lobby groups and opposition politicians all seem to agree that this rolling eviction ban isn’t really a solution. Just as the chancellor has been honest that some people will unavoidably end up losing their jobs because of the pandemic, it’s also inevitable that some people won’t be able to pay their rent for the same reason. Extending the ban just means that landlords foot the bill for the time being, but it’s not really a sustainable way to solve the problem.
Different groups have proposed various solutions based on their own agendas. Some lobby groups think landlords should take the hit, while others have suggested government grants to help cover some or all of the rent payments for struggling tenants. Some propose permanent legislative protection for vulnerable tenants, while In Wales, the Welsh government has already announced a programme of low-interest loans to help tide tenants over.
How real is the danger of a ‘tsunami’ of evictions?
Again, it depends who you ask. Recent research from the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) found that most tenants are still paying their rent in full, or have worked out compromises with their landlords. The NRLA insists that all this talk of a great wave of evictions is simple scaremongering. On the other hand, research from homelessness charity Shelter found that almost 230,000 private renters in England have fallen into arrears since the pandemic started, and that more than 170,000 private tenants have already been threatened with eviction by their landlord or letting agent.
With such a wide disparity in figures and viewpoints, it’s difficult to know how significant the spike in evictions will be when the ban is finally lifted, but either way, if the government is really serious about protecting people’s homes in the time of COVID, they’re going to need to come up with a more permanent solution.