Rose Bernstein, Tenant Voice and Campaigns Officer
Keira* lost her job and applied for Universal Credit. Because like many people she is ‘benefit capped’ (i.e. there’s a an upper limit or ‘cap’ on how the amount of benefits she can get), she can’t access the higher levels of housing benefit announced in March and what she can get doesn’t cover her rent. Initially she followed Government advice and applied to the council for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). It agreed to a DHP top up for a few months while she found a new job and a new, more affordable, flat.
But Lockdown went on longer than anyone expected, and jobs are still thin on the ground. She hasn’t been able to find one – which means she can’t pay for a deposit, which means she’s stuck in a flat she can’t afford. Her DHP will run out soon, and with a second Lockdown looking more and more likely, getting a job seems no easier than it has been.
She approached the council for help, but people like her, who are reasonably healthy, aren’t considered ‘priority need’ and so the help they get is limited – they’ve advised her to find cheaper accommodation.
“It’s a Catch-22. They tell you you must find cheaper accommodation, but when you’re not working and have no deposit it’s impossible. People are losing the security of a roof over their head – the system is really letting people down.”
The pandemic has been a hard time for renters like Keira. Again and again help from the Government comes in at the last minute, leaving people gearing themselves up for the worst, only to find they have a sudden reprieve. Extending the eviction ban was a good thing. Extending it – twice – last thing on a Friday, just before it’s due to lift, leaves you living in perpetual fear and constant hope. Now Keira is facing waiting out the six months’ notice to be evicted at the end of it anyway, having built up substantial debt in the meanwhile.
“It was all done last very minute, so people were still left wondering and worrying about the future. The government doesn’t seem to have any long-term plan to support renters and prevent a wave of homelessness next spring.
It’s going to affect people’s mental health, maybe they had good credit before like I did, but now after all this I’m not going to be able to do the things I would have before.
The anxiety is so bad. I write for a living and I’m struggling to write an email. I was job searching for months and I can’t even do an application at the moment.”
So what would help Keira?
Keira doesn’t want to stay in a property she can’t afford with a landlord who wants to get rid of her. Her most immediate need is for help to pay her rent and move somewhere else. Lifting the benefit cap and providing support with a deposit would be enough.
“If the benefit cap was lifted I wouldn’t have a shortfall in my rent and maybe I would be able to pay my rent. And why isn’t it government policy to help people with a deposit for the rental sector?”
For those who have built up arrears, help to pay them off is desperately needed. And all renters would benefit from an end to arbitrary, no-fault evictions – which the Government has already committed to.
The eviction ban provided essential security to private renters while the Lockdown was in place. Now we need permanent reforms to protect those hit hardest by the pandemic or we risk a slide into massively increased levels of homelessness and poverty.
What measures are actually needed?
- Bring forward the Renters Reform bill & end s.21 immediately – landlords should not be able to evict someone without a reason, and this bill is due to correct that
- Free renters of arrears built up during Covid-19 Lockdown – whether the govt pays the debt to landlords, or whether landlords take the loss.
- Offer deposit support to renters, particularly those trying to move to more affordable accommodation
- Raise LHA rates back to the average (median) of local market rents
- Increase the Shared Accommodation Rate – the rate of housing benefit rate given to under 35s is lower than for anyone else. We know young people are badly affected by the pandemic job losses, so it makes sense to offer them support
- Lift the benefit cap or exclude housing costs from it so that everyone actually gets the increased LHA rates in housing benefit or UC
- Continue and expand support to rough sleepers, including those who are usually considered low priority, those are intentionally homeless (which often just means evicted for rent arrears), and those who have No Recourse to Public Funds.
- Finally, the PRS needs effective and enforced licensing schemes. More people than ever are going to be left in bottom-of-the-market, poor quality housing, and we need regulation to protect them