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Labour's new housing policy would leave renters with an unsustainable mountain of debt on top of already unsustainable rents – it's not good enough, and the party must support full cancellation.

When the Tories announced their plans to protect renters from the effects of the coronavirus crisis, renters’ rights groups warned that their standalone proposal for a three month eviction ban would simply defer evictions and heavily increase rental anxiety. Instead of proposing some much needed respite from paying rent, the Labour Party have offered something equally tepid: an extension of that anxiety over a two year period in the form of a rent repayment plan.

The situation for renters was dire before coronavirus hit. Half of all working renters were only one paycheck away from losing their home with no savings to fall back on. Homes that the government are asking people to self-isolate in to stay healthy are infested with mice, cockroaches and damp, with landlords dodging requests to fix repairs for months if they are ever answered at all. To add insult to injury, while landlords spend 19% of their income on their mortgage, on average private renters fork out 46% of theirs to their landlord (when Housing Benefit is excluded). 

Research by the Resolution Foundation shows that renters are 40% more likely to be in workplaces which have been shut down by the crisis, meaning those renters are more likely to have their hours slashed or lose their jobs entirely. The eviction ban, which is due to end on June 25th, prevents the majority of residents being made homeless during this time, but there are people falling through the gaps in legislation. The landlord of Rajesh Jayaseelan, an Uber driver living in London, was legally able to change the locks to his home because Rajesh was a lodger – they have significantly fewer rights than most renters that nobody has yet proposed to fix. He later died of coronavirus. 

Despite that, the government has asked renters to rely on the “goodwill” of landlords should they be unable to pay their rent during this time. Housing associations have encouraged tenants to get into debt and ‘wait and see what happens’ due to lack of a clear plan after June 25th. With no further announcements, housing organisations are preparing for a huge spike in homelessness, expecting freshly evicted workers and families on the streets with only piles of debt to their name. 

Instead of assuring renters that any potential debt is undeserving, Labour have proposed a two year timeframe in which the debt can be paid back, essentially increasing rent for an extended period for those hit the hardest by coronavirus. Keir Starmer has already been criticised by many for diluting Labour’s message on rent payments, which opened a conversation and provided an opportunity for Labour to listen to what renters want. But that didn’t happen, and instead we are left with policies drawn up for the many by the few. 

It’s no wonder that policy announcements continue to benefit homeowners at the expense of renters, given that around 1 in 5 MPs are also landlords. Homeowners who are struggling financially have been offered mortgage holidays which, in practice, would mean letting their property out for a longer period to cover the cost. Renters cannot get back lost work hours, so the expectation is that they would need to get another job and work themselves to the bone, or get into more debt to pay off the debt to their landlord. Expecting those with the least to work the hardest in shouldering the burden of a global health pandemic is shameful. 

This is why only a cancellation of rent will do. Not a deferral or a suspension, but a total wipe of any due rent and associated debts. Huge corporate landlords can afford to take a hit and for those who can’t, they should ask the government for assistance. Means testing has a long history of unfairly targeting the working-class, as Ewan MacColl wrote in 1931 when the government proposed means testing for unemployment benefits:

So now unemployment benefit has been pared down even further and a means test introduced, a humiliating inquisition calculated to squeeze out the last drop of human dignity from every unemployed family in the land. No, it wasn’t calculated – our rulers are not like that. They are not conscious of the fact that working people possess human dignity or indeed that they have feelings of any kind. We are engaged in a war, dammit!

Labour’s capitulation to the landlord lobby under Starmer is cowardly, and a slap in the face to renters. In pushing for so little from the Tories, Labour have signaled their allegiance to a demographic which already has the backing of offshore tax havens, banks and the Conservative Party. Come June 25th, landlords might well send off their eviction notices and their Labour Party application forms at the same time, while renters ponder homelessness and a never ending cycle of debt.