The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.
Despite the mixed messages coming from Downing Street, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has had a weirdly caustic effect on some aspects of reality, making lots of things about life in the UK seem clearer than they were before. Extreme power imbalances in housing and employment, long apparent to those suffering them first-hand, are now becoming the subject of wrung hands and sympathetic tweets from even the most deluded right-wing commentators.
Understandably, given that people are faced with the prospect of spending months holed up inside their homes, housing is one of the hottest topics of crisis-time. It's hard to recall a moment in recent memory when there has been so much focus on the eternal battle fought between landlord and tenant. Over recent days, fervent social media discussion has been exacerbated by the government's iniquitous response to the crisis. We spoke to housing charity Shelter and a council housing adviser to find out more about the rights of renters in turbulent times.
Do I Still Have to Pay Rent?
Landlords – including those with buy-to-let mortgages – are being offered a three-month mortgage holiday by the government. But at the time of writing, renters – many of whom are losing jobs and income – are not being offered an equivalent rent holiday. As it stands, renters will have to keep paying for their accommodation throughout the crisis, whereas people who own property will not. According to Shelter, nearly 75 percent of renters have no savings to fall back on if they lose their home, which makes this policy particularly dangerous. Most people simply don't have the funds to waltz from one rented flat to the next, or afford to pay their rent while they're not earning.
Instead, the government is in the process of passing a law that would extend eviction notice periods from two months to three, and is encouraging landlords to "show compassion". When this is all over, that phrase should be our go-to simile whenever someone makes an unrealistic request that flies against the fundamental nature of something: "Asking me to stop eating choccy biccies is like asking a landlord to show compassion!", etc. Even if landlords weren't notoriously callous, these things should be a matter of legislation and not left to "encouragement". But here we are.
Will I Get Evicted if I Can't Pay My Rent?
Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick initially announced a ban on evictions for the next three months. But when the details of this legislation were finally announced, it became clear that this wasn't going to be a ban at all. Instead, the legislation gives tenants three months' notice of eviction rather than two. Labour MP and Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey said, "This legislation does not stop people losing their homes… it just gives them extra time to pack their bags." While it's still an evolving situation, it seems as though you're safe from eviction for the time being, but not necessarily in the long-run. If nothing changes, it will probably just mean loads of evictions in June. Thanks for nothing, Secretary of State for Housing Robert Jenrick!
If one thing's clear, it's that we shouldn't depend on the generosity of landlords: prior to this legislation, Shelter was receiving daily calls from terrified renters being threatened with eviction, including one who was illegally evicted while on holiday in Italy. One landlord even threatened to evict a tenant who worked for the NHS, for fear of contracting the virus from them. Isn't it wonderful when that famous "Blitz spirit" comes through to pull this riven country together?
What if My Landlord Tries to Evict Me Anyway?
Pandemic or no pandemic, landlords can’t just evict you because they feel like it. There are procedures they need to follow, including giving you a reasonable notice period and, most importantly, obtaining a court order. Changing the locks, harassing you in your home and physically throwing you out would all be classed as illegal eviction, which is a criminal offence. Any attempts to evict you in the next three months – in all but extreme cases – will soon be illegal.
That doesn't necessarily mean it won't happen, though. So what can you do in this situation? You can call the police, since it’s a crime like any other, though it's not always effective. "The police aren’t always very helpful in this area," says Nic, a housing adviser based in London. "There have been some efforts to improve police knowledge, but you do hear horror stories of officers not understanding eviction laws and, in worst cases, helping landlords carry out illegal evictions."
The best thing to do in this situation, as with any housing problem, is seek advice. Shelter runs a service that will talk you through your options.
What Happens After the Three-Month Period Is Over?
It's very hard to predict what the future will look like, even in the short-term. But according to the government's plans, "landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan". This means that, once the crisis is over, people who were unable to pay their rent – presumably as a result of losing income or being made unemployed – are going to emerge into a post-catastrophe, global recession job market saddled with potentially thousands of pounds worth of debt. It's a terrible policy, and hopefully it will change. And if it doesn't, let's take to the streets as soon as we can leave the house without inadvertently killing our grandparents.
What Should I Do if My Landlord Wants to Visit or Arrange a Viewing While I'm Self-Isolating?
This is a problem that has cropped up a lot on social media recently. It's understandable why you'd find this so frustrating as a tenant. If you're self-isolating, either out of concern for yourself or society-at-large, the last thing you want is a steady stream of strangers trooping mud into your flat, peering into your bedroom while you sweat and shiver uncontrollably because the Grootslang in your hallucination just asked you what the Chelsea score was. The good news is that landlords don't have the automatic right to enter your property for viewings. However, there might be a clause in your contract that stipulates they can. With or without the clause, as a tenant you still always have the right to exclude someone from the property, including the landlord.
Landlords are also duty bound to, in the words of Shelter, allow you to "enjoy your home" ("enjoy" might be a stretch, given the quality of accommodation many of us tolerate, but still). This means providing 24 hours' notice before they pay you a visit, never barging in unannounced or letting themselves in without your permission and never harassing you in any way. All of this was true before coronavirus and remains true now. Basically, landlords have a legal duty to fuck off, even if it's not always a duty they adhere to.
What if My Live-In Landlord Tries to Chuck Me Out to Self-Isolate?
This one is a bit trickier, because if you're living in your landlord's house you technically have a different legal status than a regular tenant, one which makes you easier to evict and evictions harder to challenge. How this will be affected by the government's new legislation remains to be seen.
"Basically, it's not really clear yet," says Nic. "They are promising to stop evictions by blocking their path through the courts, but to be evicted as a lodger, the landlord doesn't need to go to court. It's one of the only times where the landlord can evict you themselves. They can change the locks and exclude you from the property. The law in this area will likely always protect the interest of homeowners more than it does lodgers, and I can't see the government changing that stance because of coronavirus, to be honest."
The best thing you can do in this (pretty grim) situation is seek advice. "You should contact Shelter’s helpline," says Nic. "Live-in landlords are not meant to evict you in the fixed term but sadly if they do there’s not a lot you can do. It is always a criminal offence for them to use violence or intimidation to evict you, though."
How Can I Get Out of My Contract?
If you're planning to flee London to head back to the comfort of your parents' house, you should probably have a rethink – no matter how much you long for a garden, grown-up fridge, living room, the family dog or a shower that hasn't been totally consumed by mould spores. As rumours of a lockdown abound, more and more people are leaving the capital. This is an understandable impulse but giving into it risks spreading the virus further around the country. If you really do have to go back home, and you want to get out of your contract, there could be a way of doing it.
Your contract might have a break clause, which means that it can be terminated after a certain point, as long as you give the required notice. This only works if everyone on the contract agrees to split early. If there isn't a break clause, then it would be very difficult to extricate yourself from the legal obligation to pay. "It's very unlikely that the coronavirus pandemic is going to allow you to get out of your contract," says Nic. "Unless you already have something in the contract that allows you to end it early, there won’t be any automatic right for you to get out of your tenancy agreement just because of the crisis, unfortunately."
It might be worth chatting to your landlord, though, to see whether or not that government-encouraged compassion has magically come into play.