Life

Life For Rent: How Am I Supposed to Cover Rent in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Plus: how you can negotiate with a landlord, even if you're at a disadvantage.
07 August 2020, 9:56am
How Am I Supposed to Cover Rent in the Middle of a Pandemic?
Image by Josh Crumpler
A housing advice column for all your renting problems from VICE UK columnist Vicky Spratt. Got a burning question? Email lifeforrent@vice.com.

I have been out of work for several months and my benefits barely cover a third of my rent. I start a new job on Tuesday on a much lower salary and need to start repaying the rent in full and pay off the arrears. This also means I won't have any disposable income that could help the economy grow, and will effectively be living in poverty. I would like some help with this – I'm also vulnerable because I suffer from mental health issues.

I know that right now it doesn’t feel like it but you’re not alone. I know you’re worrying. I know your flat feels like a shrinking boat out at sea with no engine to power you back to shore. But according to official figures, the number of people who need to claim unemployment benefits because of the economic fallout of coronavirus rose to 2.6 million between March and June. According to Shelter, around 227,000 adult private renters have fallen into arrears since March.

But aloneness is another symptom of the virus – one that’s as cruel as it is difficult to treat. We’re in this together, but the dividing lines of class and wealth have never cut through our society more clearly. COVID and the social distancing we’re meant to prevent has enforced our isolation and reminded us just how fragile the bonds between us really are.

I know mental health can’t always be easily fixed with logic or practical advice, but there are some things you can do. Firstly, check whether you’re still eligible for benefits when you start your new job. You say you’re going to be on a lower salary and the “Entitled To” benefit calculator can estimate what you’re entitled to and help you to plan.

Now, your rent arrears. I checked with Shelter housing advisor Billy Sevens and he says you might actually be able to get some help with paying them off. “Try getting in touch with Citizens Advice to ask if they can apply for a Vicar’s Relief Fund (VRF) grant on your behalf,” he says. “The VRF is a homelessness prevention fund which gives out small grants in times of urgent need. Just so you know, you can’t contact the charity directly to request a grant, so Citizens Advice is the way to go here.”

The Turn 2 Us website will also help you to see if you can get a grant from any other charities or organisations.

You probably know this, but you can also access a food bank so you’re not stretching yourself to cover essentials. You can find your nearest one via the Trussell Trust website or by contacting your local council.

“If you can’t get a grant to help pay off your rent arrears, it’s a good idea to speak to your landlord as soon as possible to see if they will agree to a repayment plan,” Stevens adds. “This would mean you can pay off the arrears over a more manageable period. If your landlord refuses and you’re worried about what may happen, please contact Shelter for help.”

You are completely right that your situation means you don’t have any money to spend and help the economy, but I can’t help feeling that this is one of the government’s most dystopian messages. Are you – someone who has been financially affected by this disaster – really responsible for helping to fix it? Surely this should be about how we, as a society, help you.

Beyond raising Local Housing Allowance (which is how housing benefit is calculated), the government, I’m sorry to say, has come up with very little to help renters who have been unable to pay their rent.

Negotiating with your landlord is probably the last thing you want to do, but please give it a go. They may have more control over your life than is bearable, but appealing to their compassion is important – and I know these words can barely even cover what you’re going through, but I really hope you’re OK.

My partner and I moved into our flat almost two years ago on a two-year contract with a 12-month break clause. Our landlords are, as landlords go, quite nice – we've never met them, but they've been quite prompt at fixing things when they've gone wrong. They are quite rigid, though – the estate agent told us they were much more likely to accept our offer if we put in for two years, and when the flat was advertised with a sofa and the previous tenant threw it out, they refused to replace it.

Fast forward to now, with our contract ending in September. I've been told that my job, which is on a fixed-term contract and was due to end in August, is being extended until October. I was meant to be made permanent but then there was a pandemic – shit happens, I guess. My manager told me that he'd be “very disappointed” to see it not extended again, as my team is already running way past capacity.

However, that's no guarantee for me to be able to give a landlord. We'd love to stay in our flat. The only option I can see is persuading our landlord to accept a rolling contract until I have more clarity with my job. I wondered if there were any tips you had on how to make it more likely that they will accept, or if not, any advice on whether there are any other options?

Reading your email, there’s something I cannot stop thinking about. In 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with a human hierarchy of needs. The base, underpinning absolutely everything else in our lives, was physiological: air, water, clothing, food, sleep and…. shelter.

Without stable shelter, Maslow concluded, humans can’t do anything. We don’t feel safe. We can’t love others. We can’t respect ourselves. And we don’t fulfil our potential. Home is where everything begins – if it’s unstable, everything else falls apart. You can’t focus on everything else going on because you’re expending all of your mental energy on something that should be foundational; on how to deal with a landlord you’ve never met and can’t speak to in person. And that, IMO, is the greatest failure of the last 30 years of housing policy in Britain.

The good news is that you have lots of options. Because you rent from a private landlord who doesn’t live with you, it’s very likely your contract is an assured shorthold tenancy (AST). Once your fixed term comes to an end, it will continue to roll on a monthly basis, unless your contract says otherwise. A lot of people don’t realise this, so it’s worth me pointing out the obvious here.

You should know that there’s no legal obligation for you to sign a new fixed term contract. Housing advisor Billy Sevens suggests that “you get in touch with your landlord to explain why a new fixed term won’t work for you right now”.

“You could mention that a periodic tenancy will also work better for them, as if your job ends in October and you can’t afford the rent, it gives you both the flexibility to end the tenancy at fairly short notice,” he explains. “But if you had a fixed term contract, you may not be able to do this. If your job ends in October and you need to end your tenancy, you can find out how to end a periodic tenancy on the Shelter website.”

However, as ever, I’m going to warn you of the risk of eviction you, like all private renters, face. Because of something called the 1988 Housing Act, ASTs give renters very few rights. Section 21 of that act allows landlords to evict tenants even if they’ve done nothing wrong – they don’t even have to give you a reason, so tread carefully.

Your landlord probably feels like an elusive and intangible enemy. We could get into that but, right now, I don’t think it will help you. I know it’s tempting to send emotionally charged emails in an impetuous moment. I’ve done it. Don’t be like me; keep things as civil as possible, be firm and show you’re not going to be dicked around but present them with alternative options and solutions.

In my experience, most landlords think negotiation is a given. They expect a bit of back and forth. They see their property as a business and you can broker with them. I know it sucks and I’m really sorry – it shouldn’t be like this. For what it’s worth, I am genuinely considering changing my middle names to “Build Social Housing” by deed poll.

@Victoria_Spratt