The Government should establish a system of financial support for renters who have amassed significant rent arrears during the COVID-19 pandemic, MPs say.
A new report from the Housing Communities and Local Government Committee has called on the Government to replace what it characterises as ‘repeated, last minute extensions’ to the ban on evictions with a ‘coherent exit plan’ to prevent a post-pandemic surge in homelessness.
It argues that helping tenants pay their rent arrears will be the simplest way to avoid evictions and help landlords receive income.
According to the report, the potential cost of between £200m and £300m would prevent significant expenditure on homelessness assistance.
‘The ongoing crisis of rent arrears in the private rented sector is deeply concerning,’ said committee chair Clive Betts MP.
‘The economic consequences of the pandemic could be long-lasting and become even more severe. The ban on evictions has ensured that people remain in their homes for now, but the debt will continue to increase. Landlords, many of whom only own one or two properties, will also be struggling with a loss of income.
‘The Government will have to find a solution that is workable for tenants and fair for landlords. The gravity of the situation means it should be treated just the same as other sectors of the economy and society that have a clear roadmap out of lockdown.
‘Helping tenants pay their rent arrears would come at a cost, but would ultimately prevent significant expenditure on homelessness assistance further down the line.’
The report praised the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ scheme, which helped provide shelter for those sleeping rough. It is estimated that the strategy potentially avoided some 20,000 coronavirus transmissions and limited deaths among the homeless to an estimated 16, against around 37,430 people who had been helped into accommodation by January 2021.
However, it said that ‘Everyone In’ ‘by definition has finished’ because since May 2020 some individuals with no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status have not been supported and have had to rely on charities.
The committee’s report also said the Government did not have a good enough understanding of the numbers affected due to poor data collection.
A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report earlier this month estimated that the number of people sleeping on the streets is nearly nine times the last official estimate of people sleeping rough, which was 4,266.
It urged the Government to return to the spirit of the early pandemic and re-commit to Everyone In.
Mr Betts MP continued: ‘It is just over a year since the pandemic transformed our lives. In that time the Government has done great work, alongside partners in local government, healthcare and the charity sector, to ensure that rough sleepers were kept off the streets. However, cracks are beginning to show in this strategy and people are being allowed to fall through the gaps.
‘Individuals with no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status need to be helped, especially during a national health emergency. Relying on charities to step in is not good enough.
‘The Government needs to be clear with local authorities on their responsibilities, and provide sufficient funding to support them. They should also develop as task force to consider exactly how its policies on immigration, housing and elsewhere impact on homelessness and come up with solutions to address them.
‘They have set a target of ending rough sleeping by 2024. We will hold them to this standard.’
Responding to the report, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said: ‘‘Everyone In’ is still ongoing and for the committee to suggest otherwise is misleading. We have spent over £700m this year and are spending £750m next year on tackling homelessness and rough sleeping.
‘We are also working with partners to learn any lessons from the pandemic and as part of our ambitious plans to end rough sleeping for good.
‘We’ve acted to give renters robust protection during the pandemic, with longer notice periods of six months and banning bailiff enforcement of evictions for all but the most serious cases until 31 May.’