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Housing

Covid eviction hearings making people homeless last just minutes

Big Issue founder Lord John Bird has called on ministers to deliver on promise to scrap no fault evictions as Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds evictions are approved in minutes.

Rudy Bozart had never been in debt before Covid-19 hit but the pandemic has left him on the brink of eviction and losing his home. Now the decision on whether he will be evicted could be made in just minutes.

The 26-year-old, from Colchester, was working at a media production company when the pandemic hit in March 2020 – the same month that then-housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised “no one should lose their home as a result of the #coronavirus epidemic” on Twitter. It’s a promise Big Issue founder Lord John Bird has said the government must be “held to account on” as part of The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign.

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As work ground to a halt, Rudy lost his job when the company shut down and he had already seen his savings dwindle when he was forced to stay in a hotel because his previous landlord sold up and he was evicted.

First, he started work as a carer through an agency on a zero-hour contract to make ends meet but was forced to look elsewhere when care homes stopped using agency workers to prevent the spread of the virus.

From there, Rudy started work as a food delivery courier but his pay plus the benefits he received did little to cover his £700 a month rent and left him with just £50 a week for food. With rent arrears racking up, Rudy was facing the prospect of homelessness.

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“I never had any issues with credit or with debt, but within one year, it financially destroyed me,” he said.

“I was sitting here at home slowly building up every debt you can imagine. Eventually I started doing food delivery… Deliveroo, Uber Eats, to try and survive like that.”

Rudy was left with no choice but to pawn possessions to pay what he owed in the face of threats from bailiffs. He was also left with the impossible choice of whether to pay rent or council tax. Rudy prioritised the latter.

The day after the eviction ban ended in England, Rudy was issued with an eviction notice citing both section 8 – which requires a tenant to have more than two months of rent arrears – and section 21 of the Housing Act – a no-fault eviction where the landlord does not have to give a reason.

At the time of writing, Rudy is awaiting his case to be heard. The added stress and strain of life in limbo is taking a toll that is even making his hair fall out.

“It is the great unknown and you can’t imagine how stressful that is,” said Rudy.

“I’ve never been so stressed in my life, you don’t want after a shower to see your hair fall because of the stress, it is unbearable. I am just discovering everything in the system is broken. 

“It is absurd to think there is a section 21 notice and the judge can’t do anything against it.

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“It would be so nice if the government would say: ‘Look, we know the eviction ban has ended but now we are going to go case by case and give powers to the judges in section 8 and section 21 notices, if the base ground is rent arrears’ because I am not withholding money from my landlord. I can’t give something I don’t have.”

People hit hard by the pandemic like Rudy can lose their homes in legal cases that last just minutes, a new investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.

We need to keep people in their homes at all costs or we risk facing a mass homelessness crisis like never before

Big Issue founder Lord John Bird

The government originally announced an eviction ban at the start of the pandemic, which halted possession hearings through to September 2020. A ‘winter truce,’ as it was called by the government, was reintroduced to block evictions over Christmas before a pause on bailiff evictions stopped action up until May 2021 in England and June in Wales.

The Bureau sent a team of reporters to 30 courts across England and Wales to gather information on hundreds of hearings once they resumed.

Analysis of 550 hearings found a legal system unable to cope with Covid. The pandemic was mentioned in a third of hearings when a possession order was granted with judges quoted as saying their “hands were tied” or could find “no suitable alternative” but to grant an eviction.

Life-changing decisions were granted in mere minutes with court hearings taking on average 10 minutes in court. In a third of cases that time was five minutes or less.

The average tenant was £6,500 in arrears but The Bureau found many tenants had only just reached the two months’ threshold to be evicted.

For around a quarter of cases, the money owed was £3,000 or less, equivalent to less than three months of the average UK rent, which is around £1,000 a month. One tenant even lost their home with arrears of just £292. 

In around 60 per cent of the cases The Bureau covered, there was no tenant or lawyer to defend against the eviction while nearly one in five cases where a tenant was represented mentioned children.

In response to the Bureau’s findings, a government spokesperson said the £352billion support package for renters as well as eviction bans and extended notice periods worked to prevent the build-up of rent arrears during the pandemic.

“As the economy reopens it is right that these measures are now being lifted and we are delivering a fairer and more effective private rental sector that works for both landlords and tenants,” the spokesperson said. “We will bring forward further proposals in due course, including the abolition of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions and further support for landlords where repossession is necessary.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, warned “more renters will be in danger of losing their homes in the months ahead”.

It’s a warning The Big Issue has also been sounding since the summer through the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign.

With rising energy prices, the end of the furlough scheme and the £20 universal credit increase, the national insurance tax rise all on the horizon, families up and down the country will be feeling the squeeze this autumn and it will push many into homelessness without urgent action.

Big Issue founder Lord Bird has been leading the calls for no-fault evictions to be suspended. Theresa May’s government had previously pledged to scrap the section 21 orders – which featured in a fifth of the cases covered by The Bureau – back in 2018.

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Lord Bird has also called for rent arrears racked up during the pandemic – estimated to be around £360m according to StepChange – to be covered by the government to keep people in homes. It’s a call that has been echoed by the National Residential Landlords Association, Shelter and others during the pandemic while the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also warned of rising homelessness if arrears are not covered.

“It’s clear that the government must act now to suspend no-fault evictions. We cannot wait for a Renter’s Reform Act to be passed when there is evidence that people are losing the place they call home through no fault of their own,” said Lord Bird.

“The government must be held to account on their promise that nobody would be made homeless because of Covid-19 related poverty. We need to keep people in their homes at all costs – or we risk facing a mass homelessness crisis like never before.”

Story written in collaboration with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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