The Bristol Cable
Temporary measures could see an eviction crisis brewing.

Photo: wwikgren/Flickr

For the 30% of the city’s population that live in private rental housing, the prime minister’s announcement of a three month “complete ban” on evictions came as a relief. But new revelations have cast doubt that it is a ban in any meaningful sense. Draft legislation merely extends the notice period of evictions from two to three months. 

Equally, it’s not clear how impactful the extension of the mortgage payment holiday to landlords of tenants struggling to pay their rent due to coronavirus will be. While in principle, this means that tenants can negotiate a payment holiday with their landlords, a holiday is just that – it’s an IOU.

The impact is already starting to be felt. There have been layoffs across the city that came before or despite the government’s pledge to pay for up to 80% of employees wages among other major spending commitments.

Government has advised self-employed workers who are out of work because of coronavirus to apply for universal credit or a new style Employment and Support Allowance. But no significant measures have yet been announced to protect the thousands of self-employed or gig-economy workers. There are up to 36,000 people in Bristol alone who are not entitled to sick pay, paid leave or benefit from government support for employees.

Trade unions have warned that self-employed workers are in urgent need of help. 170 MPs and members of the House of Lords are calling for the introduction of an emergency Universal Basic Income – a no-strings-attached payment to every citizen. 

“There is an unprecedented increase in the number of new claims for universal credit”

Council worker

Aidan Cassidy, Bristol organiser for community union ACORN says a crisis could occur once the temporary eviction ban lifts; landlords will seek to collect unpaid rent for the pandemic period, but many renters will have lost their incomes in part or entirely. 

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ACORN and others are campaigning not just for a rent holiday, but a freeze. “There needs to be no expectation of rent to be paid at the end. What we need is a rent freeze” says Cassidy. “Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a debt crisis” he says, with renters having accrued debts that can’t possibly be paid down immediately, or at all, in a battered job market. The way things are going, even three months of deferred rent is not enough for individual finances and the country’s economy to recover. 

In a suggestion that might amuse many landlords and tenants alike, the government has suggested that in three months’ time, landlords and tenants “work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, taking into account tenants’ individual circumstances”. While a total freeze on rent payments will be resisted, unless protections for tenants are strengthened many renters will simply have to keep working to avoid spiralling rent arrears debt, exposing themselves and others to unnecessary risk. 

Bristol’s housing sector scrambles to respond

Along with Bristol’s private renters and homeowners, are approximately 60,000 residents of council housing and those rough sleeping or homeless and in temporary accommodation. Asked how the council would be protecting their tenants, councillor Paul Smith, cabinet member for housing, says “we’re a patient landlord” adding “we haven’t suddenly got any new powers; those need to come from the government”.

As with all public services that have felt the hit of years of austerity, the pressure is high. While many of its staff self-isolate and work remotely, the council is having to handle an exceptional level of demand.

One council worker described how they were struggling to process benefit claims and emergency payments due to staff shortages. “There is an unprecedented increase in the number of new claims for Universal Credit as people have been laid off in vast numbers already” the worker said to the Cable on the condition of anonymity. 

“We’re already understaffed pre-coronavirus to the point where the council have taken on agency staff and begun a recruitment exercise for more permanent staff. This is despite previously saying the department would be on a recruitment freeze and gradually winding down to a much smaller level because of universal credit.”

“There needs to be no expectation of rent to be paid at the end. What we need is a rent freeze”

The council is expediting housing benefit claims says Smith, issuing council tax reductions, and discretionary emergency payments. The Cabinet member for Housing estimates that up to 15,000 council tenants are particularly vulnerable to a severe case of coronavirus, “which is obviously a huge number of people”. 

Another major vulnerable group are the homeless and rough sleepers, whose official numbers have risen to 98. There are concerns that night shelters may have to close if too many staff and volunteers are forced to self-isolate.

“It’s very early days yet, but we’re looking at vacancies in student housing, because of a lot of foreign students returning home and there might be more returning home at Easter”, says Smith. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has block booked hundreds of hotel rooms for rough sleepers to self-isolate. 

On Monday night, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees made an urgent appeal for accommodation to house the city’s homeless, saying that 450 rooms were needed. The city council called on hoteliers, B&Bs, Airbnb owners and student housing providers to come forward to offer accommodation.

The coordination between private, third-sector and public agencies is a major challenge to safeguard the people of Bristol. But unless the government steps up its measures to protect private renters, particularly those that are self-employed, an eviction crisis could be unleashed once coronavirus is contained and we return to business as usual. 

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  • Faith says:

    People will take advantage of the situation and not pay rent. What are the rights for the landlord?

    • matt h says:

      the land lord literally owns a house! that seems like a massive advantage…Having no threat of homelessness hanging over you is an unattainable dream for many.

      • John says:

        Although you may have the best intentions and be concerned for the vulnerable in all situations, its naive and reductionist to assume a landlord will not be affected by tenants not paying rent. Who pays the landlords mortgage? If no mortgage payments are made, then the banks come and sell the house from under your feet, where do the tenants go then? This crisis is all about cash flow. Everyone will loose except the cash rich who can ride the wave and then buy all the middle and lower class assets again for pennies. I have a pregnant wife and 2x BTL properties, If my tenants don’t pay rent that means that I could loose everything I’ve worked hard for and my wife and child to be will be so vulnerable. Please think before you assume all landlords are stable and comfortable. Good luck everyone!

      • Christine says:

        I agree. Its ok ti help renters but not landlords who need the income because they have no pension. Why does everyone assume landlords are money bags with deep pockets. Not so. If it hits us in our pockets then at the end of the day its not worth bothering is it. So as soon as prices stabilise sell would be the way to go. At least I can survive on the proceeds.

      • M Zedong says:

        One idea would be to get a job. If you don’t have any saleable skills you could do an online course, or start a funny youtube channel about your life. Also, you could try shopping at Aldi and see you there back on luxury items like avocados. Good luck!

    • John says:

      This scares me too. The buck keeps getting passed and has to stop somewhere. Why can’t it stop with all those that have profiteered from our natural resources and financing? The royal family get enough tax payers handouts. why not start handing it back??

  • Neil O'Shaughnessy says:

    usuary ie interest on money lending is the curse of mankind,and its implemened by evil money grabbing idle leeches who stole the land from its indiginous peoples hundreds of years ago.same mode of operation throughout the world.why would they change anything now now.bankers are the problem .why should we bail those pricks out ?get rid of them and the mortgage system and slavery would be in the bin where it belongs

  • Charles Qualmann says:

    Excellent article. Keep up the good work, Cable!

  • Chris Daniel says:

    I think a lot of tenants and certainly the government have a disillusioned conception of who a Landlord is. The disillusioned and rare identity of a landlord is a antiquated ‘Lord of the Manor’ archetype. The reality for decades is that when family members have passed away, they’ve left the property to their children who have rented them for income, as opposed to selling ( as there is a Demand for rented property, because of successive government inaction, not the fault of Landlords.
    So about 50 % of Landlords are single-property blue collar workers, – your supermarket cashier, cleaners, delivery drivers NHS staff, etc These people rely on the rent as part of their financial income to sustain their families.
    Corona virus has placed hardships that Govt are addressing through the benefit system. How successfully is something to take up with them – not expect private individuals to subsidise out of their living expenses.
    There hasn’t been any expectation that supermarkets should be handing out free food, no more than private individuals can afford to give financial value [rent] for Free.

    • Christine says:

      Totally agree. Why do people think all landlords are rich. Thrifty,gone without,saved like mad,worked damned hard and what for when tenants think we are so rich we can support them.

      • matt h says:

        If you are earning money of off renters then the renters are on a monthly bases supporting and looking after you and your family….that happens each month normally!!

        A rent strike would just be the tenants asking for that support to go two ways in times of need, and just not supporting you for a little bit….

  • J. Jones says:

    Interest rates have been slashed, taxes cut all to the benefit of landlords and they have reaped massive profits in the good times from over inflated rents. We are being threatened with court order for a room that we can no longer use as the university has no told students to go home. Landlords need too wake up and smell the coffee.

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