The eviction bans in England, Scotland and Wales have been extended in an effort to protect vulnerable tenants during ‘lockdown three’. Suspensions on eviction enforcement in all three nations were due to expire, but the ban in England will now run until 21 February and those in Scotland and Wales will end on 31 March.
In England, this extension was announced on 8 January along with various measures to try and help rough sleepers and a new mediation pilot for eviction cases. The updated rules are set out in the Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021.
An extension of the ‘Christmas truce’
In September, it was announced that bailiffs would not be allowed to evict anyone living in higher-tier areas, and that there would be a general ban on evictions over the Christmas period in all but the most extreme cases. The UK government and the devolved administrations have decided that it’s necessary to extend this given the sudden rise in infection rates.
It’s worth pointing out that this new ban applies to eviction enforcement – the actual act of sending bailiffs into a property to repossess it. Eviction processes haven’t been completely suspended (as they were last year), but they just can’t be carried all the way through for the time being.
Evictions still allowed in exceptional circumstances
There are a few situations in which bailiffs can still enforce evictions, mainly in cases where the tenant has behaved especially badly. A court may grant permission for an eviction to go ahead if the situation involves antisocial behaviour, domestic violence, fraud, illegal occupation or very large arrears amounting to more than six months’ unpaid rent. It’s also possible to repossess a property more quickly if it’s unoccupied after the death of a tenant.
How has the government dealt with evictions since the start of the coronavirus crisis?
The UK government has been walking a tricky line on evictions since the coronavirus crisis first hit. On the one hand, many argue that the private rented sector isn’t sustainable in its current form without the ability for landlords to repossess their own property, but evictions are also a key cause of homelessness – which is especially dangerous during a global pandemic.
Back in March 2020, the government increased the notice period that landlords have to give if they want to repossess a property to six months, and shortly after that they suspended eviction processes altogether.
Court processes relating to repossession finally restarted in September after a six-month pause, and since then the courts have been attempting to work through the considerable backlog by prioritising more urgent cases such as those listed above. The six-month notice period remains in place until at least 31 March 2020.
Throughout the crisis, the UK government has tried to persuade landlords to be flexible with tenants who find themselves in financial difficulties, offering rent holidays or reductions where possible and appropriate. They’ve also asked the mortgage industry to allow mortgage holidays on buy-to-let properties, in the hopes that this might alleviate some of the financial pressure on landlords and allow them in turn to give their tenants more breathing space.
How do landlords feel about all this?
Industry bodies have not responded very positively to the announcement of an eviction ban extension. The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) has called the move a ‘sticking plaster’, arguing that it does not tackle the root cause – which is tenants building up unmanageable debts. They argue that the government should be putting in place measures to help tenants pay their rent when they have been adversely affected by the coronavirus crisis, rather than letting them build up much larger arrears.
ARLA Propertymark (which represents letting agents) noted that a new mediation pilot (due to start next month) could be a positive development, but also questioned the wisdom of hobbling eviction processes, writing ‘it is important to take steps back towards normality so that both landlords and tenants have access to the justice system, while putting measures in place to offer further support to tenants who have built up COVID-related arrears through no fault of their own.’
What should tenants do if they are struggling with rent arrears
It seems possible that things may get worse before they get better, particularly in light of the new virus mutation and the current national lockdown. Tenants who are struggling to pay their rent should let their landlord know as soon as possible. It may be possible to negotiate a rent holiday or a temporary rent reduction. Those who have lost employment may be in a position to claim some housing benefit, and local councils might also be able to help with a discretionary housing payment.
Encouragingly, a survey in August 2020 suggested that most tenants were still paying rent in full, but also that in cases where they were in difficulty, many had been able to negotiate successfully with their landlords.