Illustration: Alice Mollon/TBIJ
“When Covid first kicked off I was working as a home carer, looking after a guy with encephalitis,” Danny* tells the Cable. “He was put into a care home in March 2021, then got Covid and died – and obviously that meant I didn’t have a job any more.
“With the lockdown there were no jobs,” continues Danny, who rents in Easton. It took him until about a month ago to find a stable job, working nights in a cake factory for significantly less than he was on before.
Danny applied for universal credit, but because he’s under 35 he was only eligible for a shared-house allowance of about £390 a month towards his housing – nowhere near enough to cover the rent for the home he shares with his dogs.
When the landlord contacted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in spring, because Danny had gone into arrears, the government began deducting extra from his benefits to bring the debt down. After other bills had come out, he was left with just £100 a month to live on, forcing him to seek help from a food bank.
Danny, who is also being supported by the community union ACORN, is disputing with his landlord exactly how much he now owes. But with his rent at £665 a month, he says it’s a “pretty substantial amount”.
Earlier this summer, the landlord served him with an eviction notice because of his rent arrears. With the date for a possession hearing having been pushed back several times, Danny still doesn’t know when he may actually be evicted from his home.
Danny is one of dozens of people from the Bristol area to have faced eviction proceedings since the ban on evictions, put in place by the government because of coronavirus, was lifted.
More than 550 people in England and Wales have been subject to possession proceedings since the ban ended on 31 May, an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed.
The research, which involved reporters across the country attending hundreds of rental court hearings, found the vast majority of possession cases related to instances like Danny’s where tenants owe more than two months’ rent or ‘no-fault’ evictions where renters can be kicked out with two months’ notice. Both grounds for eviction – known as ‘section 21’ and ‘section 8’ respectively – are mandatory under the law, meaning judges cannot take into account extenuating circumstances relating to Covid.
And yet the pandemic’s impact was mentioned in a third of cases that ended in a possession order, the Bureau’s investigation found. This contradicts a promise made last year by Robert Jenrick MP – who lost his job as housing secretary this month – that “no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.
In Bristol, the Bureau’s researchers witnessed nearly 40 hearings involving tenants of private and social landlords during July and August. On average, eviction hearings in Bristol lasted just 10 minutes, mirroring the national picture uncovered by the Bureau.
One tenant was evicted over a debt of £1,350. That’s little more than the city’s average monthly rent, which in July across all property types stood at £1,074 according to real estate firm Zoopla. Other people had racked up arrears well into five figures – with the highest being £22,150 – despite Jenrick having also promised that no “landlord [will] face unmanageable debts” as a result of the pandemic.
Last year, campaigners and politicians warned that failing to allow courts to take into account people’s situations on a case-by-case basis would result in a “cliff-edge” of evictions after the ban lifted.
The government said in 2019 it would move to end section 21 evictions, but has yet to take action, with a spokesperson saying further proposals will be brought forward “in due course”. The section 21 process, which allows landlords to evict tenants after a fixed-term tenancy ends or at any time during a periodic or ‘rolling’ agreement, has become notorious in areas of high housing need such as Bristol.
Recent studies have found that one in three renters felt insecure during the pandemic, with moving house becoming even harder than usual with Covid restrictions in place.
In January 2021, Citizens’ Advice estimated that half a million renters across the UK were in arrears – more than half of those were not behind on rent in February 2020. With the furlough and self-employment schemes due to end this month, there are fears the overall picture could soon become even bleaker.
Nationally, the Bureau’s investigation found 63% of hearings in which grounds for eviction had been logged were related to section 8 arrears of two months of arrears or more. In around a quarter of these cases the arrears were £3,000 or less.
Meanwhile 21% were section 21 proceedings – meaning the vast majority of possession hearings were based on mandatory grounds in which the judge had no discretion to intervene.
In Bristol, grounds were listed for only 19 of the hearings attended, with eight relating to section 8 (rent arrears) and six being no-fault (section 21) evictions.
‘Harrowing to see possession cases rising’
Responding to the Bureau’s research, Tom Renhard, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for housing, said he finds it “harrowing to see possession cases on the rise” following Jenrick’s promises that no one would lose their home as a result of the pandemic.
“There has been ample opportunity to introduce laws to address this and give renters the protections they deserve,” he told the Cable. “Yet another broken Tory promise will see us as a council attempting to pick up the pieces in supporting people whose stability has been shattered.”
“Where is the promised legislation to get this done?” added Renhard, who as a former national chair of ACORN campaigned to end no-fault evictions. “When will the government get around to tabling the Renters Reform Bill [which would abolish section 21 and make other changes to the private rented sector]? Will it actually redress the power imbalance between renters and landlords? Too many questions have been left unanswered by a national government that is still failing to protect its citizens.”
Polly Neate, the national chief executive at housing charity Shelter, said the new findings have “again exposed how the pandemic has hit renters hard, causing many to lose their homes – despite government promises”.
“The financial shockwaves created by the pandemic have left many renters fighting to stay afloat, with thousands facing mounting debts and Covid arrears they have little hope of paying off,” Neate said. “With only days until the Covid protections of furlough and the universal credit uplift are removed, more renters will be in danger of losing their homes in the months ahead.”
Renters must be given financial help to clear Covid arrears, she added, along with improved legal aid funding to help them deal with debt and benefit problems before they reach crisis point.
‘Impossible to clear debts’
“Even as the economy recovers it will be impossible for many to pay off their debts so they will be under heightened threat of eviction,” warned Alicia Kennedy, director at Generation Rent, alluding to situations like Danny’s. “Without giving courts discretion over all types of eviction, the [government’s] measures only delayed evictions that could have been avoided.”
Kennedy adds that because tenants cannot challenge a valid section 21 notice, the true numbers of people to have lost their homes through this route during the pandemic will be far greater than the dozens uncovered by the Bureau’s research. Many will simply have left their homes after being served notice.
As he awaits news of his eviction date, Danny says he has approached Bristol City Council’s homelessness team. With rents in the city continuing to rise, he is not optimistic about his chances of being able to find a new home in the private sector for him and his dogs.
“If I get evicted I’ll be fucked,” he says. “I barely earn enough money to pay for this place anyway.”
*name has been changed