When the coronavirus pandemic reached Britain and the economy began shutting down, I almost immediately began to feel anxious about how I was to going to pay my rent.
Being one of over two million private renters in London, I was already spending more than a third of my income on rent before the crisis. This is despite not having hot water or central heating throughout the winter. I work in the NHS, meaning that at the best of times, my income level just about made it possible to afford my regular outgoings like rent and bills.
But since we went into lockdown, the household income of my partner and myself has been reduced and it’s now become impossible to keep making rent payments. There simply isn’t enough cash coming in. Like a quarter of the population, I live paycheck to paycheck with very little in the way of savings. As the pandemic has dragged on, I now fear that I’m entering a situation where I’m forced to choose between enormous debt or homelessness.
So many other workers are also in this catch-22. It exposes the flaws and fragility of insecure work, extortionate rents, and power being concentrated in the hands of bosses and landlords. Without an immediate rent suspension, the crisis facing private renters is a disaster-zone waiting to happen. Unfortunately, the government and the Labour Party seem to be in denial about this reality.
Research produced by the New Economics Foundation has shown that 1.2 million renters are among those at the highest risk of falling through the gaps in the government’s job and income protection schemes. The decision to suspend evictions for three months alleviated some of the pressure, but only temporarily: eviction orders are still being granted, meaning that thousands are already facing eviction once the three-month period is over. We know that some landlords have already managed to evict tenants despite the ban.
If the government really wants to avoid an evictions crisis, not only should they suspend rent payments, but also rent debt accrued since the pandemic should be cancelled and there must be a permanent ban on evictions. As it stands, they are currently choosing to prioritise profits of landlords over the survival of private renters. I’ve been left with no other option but to withhold my rent, which I’ve done since April.
The union I’m part of – the London Renters Union (LRU) – has heard from thousands of struggling renters since the start of the pandemic and we know that millions of renters are being forced to choose between food and rent. A recent survey of LRU members showed that more than 75% supported the idea of a rent strike.
So this weekend, we’ve officially launched a new campaign – “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” – driven by the reality that private renters have been left with no other option but to withhold some or all of their rent. For many, this will mean that instead of transferring money into their landlord’s account, they will be able to afford basic essentials. This campaign is not a war against landlords, but we do want people to recognise that it’s unfair for landlords to get a mortgage freeze while renters are expected to keep paying.
For many people, the idea of withholding rent is a daunting and scary prospect. We know that landlords will make threats. But there is power in a union, and the more people take part, the more likely it is that the government will listen to our concerns and suspend rent payments.
If you are a private renter in the UK choosing between eating and paying the rent, don’t sit in silence – join our campaign and spread the word.