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A Tidal Wave of Homelessness Is Coming

Unless the government acts now to ban evictions and freeze or cap rents, we're facing a catastrophic wave of homelessness this winter.

In the last year, the numbers of private tenants approaching councils having been served with a Section 21 notice (a ‘no fault eviction’) has increased by 121%. (Getty Images)

In the unprecedented circumstances of Covid, the government promised that ‘no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus [would] be forced out of their home, nor [would] any landlord face unmanageable debts’. Three extraordinary measures were implemented: an eviction ban, longer notice periods once evictions were resumed, and the accommodation of all those sleeping rough (a scheme known as ‘Everyone In’).

The advantages of those measures were obvious. The Everyone In initiative prevented infections, admissions to hospital, and deaths among the homeless community, and meant some 37,000 people in England were subsequently provided with long-term accommodation. Benefit payments were also raised by £20 per week—a lifesaver for many—and the furlough scheme protected against redundancies.

Two and a half years on, these emergency measures have expired. Arguably, we now face another public health crisis—one of rapidly increasingly homelessness in and of itself.

Since 2021, there’s been a 160% increase in landlords applying to the courts for possession orders and a 164% increase in possession orders made. Shelter reports that a third of private tenants—almost 2.5 million renters—are either behind on or constantly struggling to pay their rent, and yet one in seven private renters had their rent increased in the last month. One in three private renters—2.6 million adults—are already spending at least half their household income on rent.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, 278,110 households were assessed by councils in England to be homeless or threatened with homelessness. This total figure is slightly less than pre-Covid levels, but the long-term trends are worrying: in the last year, the numbers of private tenants approaching councils having been served with a Section 21 notice (a ‘no fault eviction’) has increased by 121%, and there was a 16% increase in people in work approaching councils as homeless.

These figures will only get worse as the cost of living crisis escalates. Privately owned homes will be at risk as mortgage repayments increase. And if you’re already spending over a third of your household income on rent, every increase in the cost of food or utilities further stretches that incredibly difficult juggling act.

There are some long-term remedies proposed both by the government and by Labour. The government, for its part, says it intends to end no fault evictions (a manifesto commitment reiterated in its white paper ‘A Fairer Private Rented Sector’), to ban ‘no DSS’ discriminatory lettings by private landlords, and to set up a Property Portal to regulate landlords. Welcome though these commitments are, ‘no fault’ evictions are to be replaced with mandatory (or ‘no fault’) grounds where a landlord intends to sell or move into the property, which create obvious opportunities for abuse.

More importantly, there’s been no consideration of controlling or capping private rents. Tenants in rent arrears will be subject to existing (Ground 8) and new mandatory grounds, meaning courts can’t take their circumstances, the reason for the arrears, or any repayment proposals into account.

Despite the omissions, however, the suggested reforms reflect the rising concern about insecure and expensive housing among the electorate, even among Tory voters. The big question is whether Liz Truss’s government and a new secretary of state will follow through on their predecessors’ promises.

When it comes to rough sleeping, the government also says it’s committed to ending the problem by 2024, with a new strategy—’Ending Rough Sleeping for Good’—published two days before Liz Truss became prime minister that promised £2 billion to make rough sleeping ‘rare, brief, and non-recurring.’ Labour will no doubt support the strategy, assuming it survives Truss’s spending cuts. The Labour government in Wales is legislating so that rough sleepers will be in ‘priority need’, entitling them to temporary accommodation and help with finding long-term accommodation. Scotland abolished the priority need test in 2012, so anyone who approaches a council as homeless will be accommodated. The government in England should do the same, or at least bring rough sleepers in from the cold.

Of course, the government’s big omission so far is on council housing. It’s an omission Labour has rightly pointed out: at last month’s Labour Party Conference, Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up etc., promised to ‘mend the deliberate vandalism of our social housing stock’, ‘restore social housing to the second largest form of tenure’ (after owner-occupation, so eclipsing the private rented sector), and ‘rebuild our social housing stock and bring homes back into the ownership of local council and communities’. Social housing—and above all council housing—is cheaper, more secure, and in better condition than the private rented sector. It can be built to environmentally friendly standards, thus keeping utilities bills low.

Long-term, we will only end the insecurity of private renting and the scandal of homelessness by building more council homes and abolishing Right to Buy (as has happened in Scotland and Wales), so that council homes remain in public ownership. And to prevent rent hikes to pay for increased building, council housing costs should be separated from their rental income.

These are all vital steps that need to be taken. But as the cost of living crisis continues to get worse, what should be done immediately to prevent a public health disaster caused by a tsunami of evictions this winter?

Shelter recommends an increase in housing benefit and Universal Credit, so that allowances cover the full amount of rent. Crisis has a Plan to End Homelessness designed to tackle hidden homelessness as well as rough sleeping. All housing and homelessness charities united to condemn the government’s recoupment of the £20 per week benefit increase last year, and call for benefits to be increased. The government, for its part, has threatened to institute the biggest real-terms cut to the basic rate of benefits ever made in a single year, which would have further catastrophic consequences for housing.

And ACORN, the renters’ union, is calling for an immediate rent freeze and a return to the evictions ban. It’s a big demand, and one that would be resisted bitterly by the private landlords’ lobby. But if tenant campaigners in Scotland have recently won a rent freeze, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do it in England too—and without big action on the private rented sector, we’re going to see a lot more people sleeping on the streets or in temporary hostels this winter.

About the Author

Liz Davies KC is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is co-author of Housing Allocation and Homelessness: Law and Practice (Luba, Davies, Johnston & Buchanan, LexisNexis, 2022), and of the Society for Labour Lawyers’ Proposals for Housing Law Reform (2021). She contributed to Housing is a Human Right (Labour Housing Group and Labour Campaign for Human Rights, 2022).