The UK must freeze private rents now – or thousands will be made homeless | Joe Beswick | Opinion

In March, the government announced its plans to protect renters during the pandemic: a three-month suspension of evictions and a marginal restoration of housing benefit to 2015 levels. The suspension is scheduled to end in mid-June, and has not been extended, leaving renters fearing for the future.

Private renters are among those least able to weather the economic shocks of the pandemic. With their median weekly household earnings already £161 lower than mortgage holders’, private renters’ housing costs on average eat up around a third of total household income. And this is before the effects of the recession. Recent analysis from the New Economics Foundation found that a minimum-wage worker who loses their job and has to rely on universal credit will have their income cut by 45%.

Under current government measures, the public health crisis risks becoming a homelessness and evictions crisis. Citizens Advice found last week that 2.6 million private renters have already missed, or expect to miss, a rent payment due to the crisis.

For thousands of renters who’ve lost their income but are still required to pay rent, eviction could come quickly once the suspension is lifted. In the words of Ghazal, a member of the London Renters Union: “I’ve lost all my work because of the pandemic. My landlord won’t give me a rent reduction and I’m worried that this means I will be forced out.” London Councils, the representative body of the city’s local authorities, has warned of an “avalanche” of evictions coming down the line.

In response, at the weekend the Labour party announced a “five-point plan” to protect renters. The scheme extends the eviction suspension by six months, gives renters two years to pay off any rent arrears built up during the crisis, and asks the government to consider a temporary increase to housing benefit. But even this is unlikely to be enough, and involves plunging tenants into debt to protect landlords’ income streams.

With the Bank of England contemplating the worst recession in 300 years, renters’ incomes are unlikely to bounce back once lockdown lifts, and the impact of the crisis on people’s ability to pay rent will be here to stay. If we are to protect renters, we need to solve the problem of rent.

Under Labour’s plan, a renter who missed three payments of the average monthly rent in England (£867 a month) would find themselves paying £108 extra every month for the next two years. With rents in ordinary times already consuming a third of income – and 42% in London – this extra cost can be little afforded.

Instead, and as the New Economics Foundation has recently proposed, the most efficient and effective method to prevent looming evictions in a fair way is to temporarily suspend rents. These measures should be matched by a genuine mortgage freeze (that prevents interest from accruing), alongside income protection for those landlords who might otherwise fall below a basic standard of living, and low-interest loans to mortgage providers from the Bank of England to maintain liquidity in financial markets. This package would prevent renters racking up arrears during the nadir of the jobs crisis, while also supporting landlords and banks in a cost-effective way.

The policy would provide respite immediately to many renters, allowing them to get back on their feet. The policy should be unwound gradually, alongside restrictions on rent increases (to prevent excessive clawback from landlords) and increased housing benefit.

As with all major reform, there would be legal challenges that would need to be navigated. But, whatever the final policy detail, the question the government and Labour must ask themselves is: who should pay for the crisis, and who do their policies and proposals protect? Despite being among the least well-resourced to do so, renters are effectively being asked to shoulder the cost of the crisis to preserve the economic rights of landlords.

Opposition parties such as Labour are right to bring the focus back to renters. The government is burying its head in the sand, and unless it acts soon, its policies will trigger a homelessness and evictions crisis. Before the pandemic, half of renters were already just one payday away from being unable to afford their rent. If we want to protect the most economically vulnerable people from the worst effects of the recession, we must go further than Labour’s proposal. We need to suspend rents immediately.

Joe Beswick is head of housing and land at the New Economics Foundation

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