A Housing Policy Built on Sand? Why Eviction Rates Are Going Through The Roof
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
By Lucca Di Virgilio, Head Editor
In June 2021, an uncertain fate befell thousands of households when the government voted to repeal a clause in the 2020 Coronavirus Act which delayed when landlords could evict social and private rented-housing tenants. The clause, which had been in place since March 2020, provided a safety-net for those struggling financially throughout the pandemic by banning bailiff-enforced evictions and delaying eviction hearings.
Between June and September, studies suggest that the alleviation of the law has had dire consequences for many. For those served eviction notices, there has been a 207% increase in court repossessions in comparison to the three months prior and an even greater 756% increase in bailiff-enforced evictions from forty-five between April and June to 385 between July and September. Increasingly, those who are evicted have struggled to find alternative housing themselves and have had to rely on local authorities. In few cities other than Greater Manchester is this highlighted most clearly with a 726% total increase in temporary accommodation from 2010 to last year.
Although the worst effects of the law change are seen among the most economically-disadvantaged, many more are feeling the squeeze. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation demonstrates that, across the UK, 400,000 renting households are at risk of eviction, which translates to around five percent of all renters, and around a million more are concerned about being evicted in the next three months.
What is driving these figures?
On the surface, these figures are easily explained by the fact that due process was halted for eighteen-months or so. This meant that courts could not process cases for households served eviction notices before March 2020 and landlords could not force tenants from their properties with bailiffs. With consideration of the backlog built up throughout the pandemic, one may think it unsurprising that repossessions through courts and bailiffs have increased so much since June 2021.
However, the eviction rate still seems surprisingly high in light of a YouGov report which stated that ‘initially, only the most serious cases will be prioritised, such as cases involving domestic violence, serious anti-social behaviour and rent arrears of six months or more’. In reality, it seems as though the number of repossession hearings taking place is returning to business as usual, with one article reporting that court operations are already back to 58 percent of levels seen before the pandemic, with some cases only lasting nine minutes. In Manchester alone, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that there have been 71 repossession hearings in this time frame.
Another way of explaining the high rate of evictions would be to look at the continued enforcement of draconian legislation which grants more legal ground to landlords, banks and courts and takes power away from tenants. Section 21, a stipulation in private-contracts which affords landlords the right to evict at the end of an Assured Tenancy Shorthold, means that tenants have less legal recourse and are still vulnerable to eviction even if they have complied with the contract. It is widely recognised as unfair and indicative of the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. So much so, that Westminster promised to end eviction under Section 21 back in 2019, but so far have failed to make good on this promise.
That said, evictions under Section 21 constitute a small minority of the total repossession hearings. Take Manchester as an example, out of thirty-four repossession hearings recorded, only six were sought under ‘Section 21’. Consequently, our analysis would be misplaced to put too much emphasis on this stipulation, and we ought to broaden our field of interest.
To get to the root of why tenants in greater numbers are going through legal proceedings, eviction and ending up in temporary accommodation or on the street, we must understand how and why tenants are unable to afford rent and are vulnerable to the legal infrastructure which facilitates eviction. To do this, we must look at where the pandemic is most keenly felt. As a whole, renters include young people, racial minorities and those claiming benefits as their income is rarely high enough to get onto the housing ladder. They are also the groups whose income has and remains the most disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
A House of Commons report on Coronavirus’ impact on the labour market published in December 2021 illustrates this issue to great effect. The report highlights how these groups staggered economic recovery is embodied in the nature of their employment and income. They tend to work in already low-paid sectors like hospitality, retail and leisure which were sporadically closed until summer 2021 and, as a result, have endured more furlough pay and lay-offs in addition to a lower-than-average wage than other societal groups. In short, Covid’s impact on the labour market means that while rents have remained the same, or have even increased over the past year and half, income in these groups has shrunk, which in part explains how some renters are struggling more than ever to make rent.
According to the latest figures, the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on the labour market has increased the number of those claiming benefits, with some studies showing an increase of 772,100 since March 2020. Between these three groups, those who claim benefits are most vulnerable to eviction as a large part of their stipend goes towards housing costs. In other words, if the benefits they receive does not cover rent, they may fall into arrears and could face eviction. As a group which has accumulated more than £440 million in rent arrears throughout the pandemic, understanding what led to this will shed light on why eviction rates are so high.
In Manchester, benefit claimants in private housing teeter increasingly on the precipice of eviction. Escalating rent prices in contrast to stagnant housing benefits partially explains their vulnerability. Essentially, the amount they receive in benefits from the Local Housing Area (LHA) does not cover their rent as there is a sizable difference between average rents and Local Housing Area (LHA) rent levels which form the basis of the level of benefit paid for housing costs. Although analysis undertaken by the Council’s Policy, Research and Information (PRI) team highlights that a rise in LHA rates from April 2020 has made some areas of Manchester more affordable, covid-19 led to an increase in individuals in Private Rented Sector (PRS) tenancies claiming benefits in areas where the LHA does not meet housing cost.
But what explains this difference? Well, according to Manchester City Councillor Rahman it all comes down to supply and demand; as he put it ‘demand for housing far outstrips supply and market rents far outstrip local housing allowance rates’. But if rent arrears are simply the consequence of market factors, far beyond the control of tenants, then surely the soaring eviction rates are something which tenants are being unduly punished for?
To add insult to injury, the end of the temporary levy to universal credit has pushed even more households to breaking point. In Bury alone, the universal credit cut meant that 15,000 families now have £1000 less a year, which is more than a month’s rent for the average two-bed property. A fact which seems doubly incredulous when contrasted with the government’s generous tax break to wealthier homeowners through the stamp duty holiday.
Some may be wary of criticising the government’s treatment of those at risk of eviction. They may point to recent efforts to alleviate the worst of the crisis, such as the the department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ £65 million support package for private sector renters or the six week ‘breathing space’ moratorium. However, these attempts to defend the government would be misguided.
Take the support package, for instance. Announced back in October, when the repercussions of lifting the ban were coming to light, the department framed this measure as a ‘winter-top up’ of the Homelessness Prevention Grant which has been distributed to English councils since 2018. Though welcomed as an important recognition of the hardship that many will face in the winter months, on the whole, many have critiqued the package as failing to address the rent debt accumulated throughout the pandemic. What's more, the winter-support fund is paid directly into the landlord’s bank account so will not help renters from escaping the cycle of falling back into arrears. Or take the ‘breathing space’ moratorium, a procedure in which tenants can pause eviction for a maximum of six weeks while they deal with other debts, but fails to address the unfairness in the law which gives landlords an absolute right to possession nor offers long-term financial support to the tenant to prevent their financial stability deteriorating again.
Non-negotiable neoliberal tenets underpinning the UK government’s approach to housing, such as a deference to landlords and consecration of market authority, means that renters will always be on the bottom rung of our housing ladder. The governments’ tendency to put private gain above collective betterment means that efforts to overcome these issues will always fall short. If the arguments above have failed to hit home, then perhaps the rise in eviction rates would be better understood in analogous terms.
A popular parable in the Gospel of Matthew tells a tale of two men, one foolish and one wise, who are tasked with building their respective houses. The foolish man builds his house on a foundation of sand and, inevitably, when the rain comes down, the floods come and the wind blows his house crumbles. Whereas the wise man’s house, which he builds on a foundation of rock, remains strong when confronted with the elements. Though told as a story, many years ago, the message of Matthew’s parable remains relevant today, without a solid foundation, anything constructed on sand is doomed to collapse in the brooding shadow of a storm.