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Rent freezes are needed to avoid mass evictions

RICHARD BURGON MP warns that there is a real danger that the coronavirus crisis will turn the housing crisis into a catastrophe

OUR housing system has been broken for decades. Millions of people were struggling to pay the rent even before the coronavirus crisis, but many now face being overwhelmed by housing debt and the risk of losing their home.

After Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution we saw 40 years of insufficient council house building combined with increased marketisation of housing. Rents rose faster than wages, leaving private renters spending an average of 40 per cent of their income on rent. Access to long-term secure housing was pushed out of the reach of many.

The number of tenants who privately rent living in overcrowded conditions doubled in the last decade and, as with all of Britain’s social crises, black communities are especially affected and much more likely to suffer overcrowding.

All this meant that poor housing was already a public health concern. There are now even fears that areas with the highest levels of overcrowding could also have some of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases.

Urgent action is needed to prevent the fallout of coronavirus turning the housing crisis into a catastrophe. While it is right that the government has announced a two-month extension to the eviction freeze following pressure from tenant and community unions including Acorn, Living Rent and the London Renters Union, this simply does not go nearly far enough.

Unless an eviction freeze is matched with action to suspend rents to address the loss of incomes, all it will do is pile up unsustainable levels of debt for tenants to repay. Given the Bank of England forecasts the most severe economic crisis since before the industrial revolution that means large numbers of tenants are at risk.

Shelter has labelled the eviction freeze extension “only a stop-gap” and the London Renters Union warned that “We’re still heading for a chaotic rent debt and eviction crisis this summer unless the government cancels rent debt and makes the eviction ban permanent.” Tenants need more than a policy that simply adds up to a few more months to pack their bags.

Yet government advice has been that at the end of the emergency period “landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan.”

This is either deeply naive about the power relations that exist between exploitative landlords and vulnerable tenants or is just siding with fat-cat landlords.

Labour needs to be a powerful voice for the country’s 20 million renters and especially those who’ve been hit by this crisis, be it by pay cuts, reduced hours or job losses. According to the Resolution Foundation, one in eight private renters has already fallen behind with housing costs.

Renters need real solutions. That is why I have launched a motion in Parliament demanding rent suspensions for tenants affected by the coronavirus crisis, the cancellation of rent arrears accrued during the crisis and measures to protect renters from eviction.

The New Economics Foundation has explained in detail how such a policy could work. Their recent paper calls for rents suspensions to be matched by a genuine mortgage freeze for landlords, alongside income protection for those landlords who might otherwise fall below a basic standard of living.

This offers a way for the government to ensure that no-one faces severe financial hardship or loss of their home at this time. These proposals, unlike what we have seen from the government so far, are commensurate with the scale of the expected economic shock.

We can’t allow this public health crisis to become an economic crisis for millions of people. Key to that is the principle that no-one should lose their home while they are trying to cope with the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath.

Rather than forcing people to choose between feeding their kids or keeping a roof over their heads it’s time to recognise housing as a basic human right and put the support in place to make sure people can enforce that right.

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