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Opinion

The roots of the impending eviction crisis are clear

A new approach is needed, write Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP and Nick Hodges. Enshrining the right to housing could represent the bold legislation required.

Once the eviction ban is lifted at the end of May, Shelter has predicted that nearly a quarter of a million renters will be at immediate risk of homelessness.

This will only add to the estimated 20,000 people who are already street homeless, as well as the 130,000 legally homeless children across the country, currently residing in temporary accommodation.

For most of the renters Shelter is warning about, the offence in question is rent arrears accrued during the pandemic.

The alacrity with which landlords evict tenants is a daunting prospect for many. Of the just under 5 million households who now privately rent their properties, 500,000 people have fallen short on rent payments over the past year.

The lack of available affordable housing is a key determinant here, but the rates at which rents have risen over the past decade indicates that the system has become unsustainable.

While wages continue to stagnate, rents have rocketed and the average tenant now spends 50 per cent of their salary on housing costs. In Brighton, for example, growth in rent has outstripped wages for over nine consecutive years. Since 1995 in the city, property prices have increased by nearly 700 per cent.

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Compounding this newfound threat of homelessness is the fact that finding new accommodation is becoming more difficult. In the Private Rented Sector, property agents demand that salaries of aspiring tenants be over two times the monthly rent. In addition, a guarantor earning around £50,000 a year must also often be provided. The first month’s rent needs to be paid upfront, and a deposit of 5 weeks is a legal requirement. For many, this is just impossible.

The uphill battle is most apparent for the two million workers currently earning the National Minimum Wage of £17,000 per year. But for those in receipt of state support, the system is even more discriminatory. If you are a disabled person, a single mother, or in receipt of Universal Credit, the widespread practice of ‘No DSS’ lettings will simply refuse you access to the market.

The courts have ruled this to be unlawful, but in a decision that is impossible to enforce. An equally malignant effect is that property management companies that are ‘DSS friendly’ have started to spring up. The most common approach of theirs is to invest in three-bedroom properties, convert them to offer six tiny studios, and then charge extortionate rates for tenants who are excluded from pursuing other options. Each year, around £10 billion is handed over from the public purse in this fashion, through an ever-increasing housing benefit bill.

Worst of all, for those lucky enough to surmount all of these barriers, they are then only afforded the flimsy protection that six month, short-hold tenancy agreements can provide. Before long, the threat of losing their homes reappears.

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Given the above, it is clear that housing is yet to be seen as a basic right for all. Affordable, secure, and suitable housing has become increasingly unobtainable. Moving forward, it has to be recognised that housing should not be treated as a luxury, but as a basic necessity.

As society begins to peel away from the pandemic, there is an opportunity to begin this transition now. Protections must be in place for the 250,000 people on the verge of losing their homes. Underpinning the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government should be a belief that we all have the Right to Housing. Decisions and initiatives across the board need to be made with it at their core.

While the government has rightly promised to ban No-Fault evictions, evictions due to rent arrears will not only remain, judges have no discretion to side with tenants if it ever does get to court meaning those who have accrued arrears due to a global pandemic can be at risk of homelessness.

This is not the case in agricultural or some commercial tenancies where the debt is treated separately to the occupation of the property itself meaning payment plans and negotiation of rent referrals have always been a reality. Why are businesses afforded more rights than people’s homes?

The right to housing would ensure that people gradually gain the protection they require, with the backing of the courts, and with  the security of tenure guaranteed. It would also more effectively allow for governments to be held to account on the issue of housing; serving as a benchmark to appraise policies.

If we are to prevent future swathes of homelessness arising, not limited to the impending evictions crisis in May, a new approach is needed. Enshrining the right to housing could represent the bold legislation required.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the Labour MP for Brighton, Kemptown and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Renters and Renters Rights.

Nick Hodges is a homelessness prevention worker at the Single Homeless Project in North London, and Campaigner with Labour Campaign for Human Rights

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