Delays Are Not Enough – It’s Time to Cancel the Rent

Hundreds of thousands of renters face unaffordable arrears on top of their runaway housing costs. Delaying evictions isn't a solution – it's time to campaign for write-offs.

It was only days ago that government spokespeople were insisting the eviction ban would end this Monday, arguing that the move represented an “important step” towards ending lockdown and was necessary to protect the rights of landlords to “regain their property.” The insistence that the ban would lift from the end of August had been a consistent government message all summer, much to the delight of the landlord lobby.

Yet today, faced with resistance from the organised renters’ movement, the government blinked. With clear echoes of the exam results fiasco, the government has improvised a solution at the eleventh hour, and the eviction ban is to be extended to September 20th. While the Scottish and Welsh governments have extended the ban into 2021, Boris Johnson has gifted renters 28 days.

These measures merely kick the can down the road. Botched and chaotic, they are by no means a solution to the crisis that renters are facing. While respite is undoubtedly welcome, the measures don’t go nearly far enough.

Across England, Shelter estimates that 230,000 households in the private rented sector are in arrears. With an average 2.3 individuals per household, this adds up to over half a million people at risk of homelessness should the ban be lifted.

In the face of a potential second wave of coronavirus infections, this would amount to a social and public health catastrophe. But this is the reality we’re in, and today’s announcement does nothing fundamental to change it. 

What’s more, as the furlough winds up in October and unemployment further rises, the numbers of those unable to meet their rent will only grow. The problem is obvious: tenants are running out of cash. Even before this crisis, many were struggling to afford runaway housing costs.

That is why there can only be one solution: arrears of unpaid rent from April onwards should be wiped. It’s time to cancel the rent.

To achieve this, the government must compel banks to maintain the mortgage freeze for landlords. Crucially, it must also ensure that this freeze also applies to renters.

Repayment plans or emergency loans to renters in arrears must be rejected, as it would only amount to a massive rent hike in the near future. The government must state clearly that any renter who has fallen into arrears shouldn’t have to pay them off.

Of course, the landlord lobby will protest vigorously at such a settlement. Even now, it is calling for ‘financial support’ for landlords, despite the fact that research has shown that around 45% of the furlough scheme has acted as a financial subsidy to private landlords.

Since the pandemic began, this powerful lobby has marshalled a litany of disingenuous arguments to shore up their case against eviction bans, from the familiar spectre of the ‘problem tenant’ to the eviction ban breaching landlords ‘human rights’ to property.

The absurdity of the situation is that landlords have been in receipt of a double subsidy throughout. A freeze on mortgage repayments has protected their outgoings, and mandatory rent repayment has protected their income.

And yet the entitlement of landlords has been breathtaking. Organised landlordism seems to hold a sincere belief that they alone should weather this historic crisis with their financial situation unchanged: not even a global pandemic should interfere with their right to collect the rent.

But this entitlement hasn’t come from nowhere – it is the result of a housing system that has promoted the class interests of landlords for over 30 years. 

Thatcher’s 1988 Housing Act made precarity permanent in the private rented sector, creating the legal form of the ‘assured shorthold tenancy’ – the default category of tenancy in England and Wales today. These tenancies have limited security, and a mandatory minimum tenure of 6 months (the shortest in Europe).

The Act also introduced various grounds for eviction, including Section 8, which made rent arrears a mandatory grounds for eviction (with no need for discretion in circumstances such as loss of income) and Section 21, which allowed landlords to evict without reason.

And if renters are to ever know security, this is the framework that needs to be overturned. Section 21 must be abolished, Section 8 reformed so that arrears are no longer a mandatory ground for eviction. More broadly, permanent tenancies for private renters must become the norm, and councils must be granted the power to enact rent controls.

Today, the organised renters movement scored a victory against a confident and powerful landlord lobby. But the government has only granted us 28 days – we’re still in the fight. We must demand an extension of the ban into next year and a cancellation of rent debt. And we must insist that, after years of creaming off the top of a housing crisis, it is landlords that take the hit. 

After that comes a complete transformation of housing in this country, which is the only way to solve the mess we currently find ourselves in. But this can be achieved only through political struggle and collective action. If you aren’t in a tenants union, join one – and get ready to stand up for yourself.