2020 has been gruelling, with the poorest in society left to carry the weight of a catastrophically-handled global pandemic. With the announcement of another national lockdown in England, the government has extended mortgage holidays for homeowners – but, as in March, there will be next to no support for renters.
In recent decades, neoliberals have promoted home ownership as the pinnacle of individual achievement. Got your foot on the housing ladder? You’ve made it. You’re important. And if you can afford the initial deposit on buying your first home, why wouldn’t you? Compared with monthly mortgage payments, average rents across England are akin to throwing 45.5% of your wage out of the window. But in the current market, of course, millions of people have no choice but to rent.
What’s more, landlordism has infected the private rented sector so insidiously that many landlords now rely on high rents as their only source of income, meaning renters’ wages support both renters and landlords. An unjust power-relation, however, means the burden of any break in that income will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the tenant. Landlords wallets are infinitely more protected than those of renters – and they know it.
All this became only too clear when the first lockdown was announced back in March. Homeowners were offered a mortgage holiday, with an informal, non-binding note asking landlords to be accommodating towards any tenants struggling to pay rent. The idea was that landlords’ goodwill would trickle down and protect tenants. It didn’t, of course, because this goodwill doesn’t exist.
The renters movement fought hard for and won an eviction ban, which was extended until September, to protect certain categories of renters for a total of six months. Lodgers, however, remained unprotected, and an estimated 20,000 households were legally made homeless between April and August. Factoring in illegal evictions, the total number of households made homeless during this period is no doubt higher.
As we head into a chaotic second national lockdown, the state of play is familiar. Again, a mortgage holiday has been announced for homeowners with no mention of any protections for renters. 9.6 million jobs have been furloughed since April, meaning millions of renters are being expected to pay 100% of their rents on only 80% of their wages. As it stands, the government does not intend to announce another eviction ban to protect renters.
What’s more, prior to the announcement of a national lockdown, hospitality workers in tier 3 regions were expected to pay full rent on just 66% of their wages. Government advice on whether evictions would take place in these regions was predictably unclear: the justification for lifting the eviction ban in September was that household finances would be in better shape by then, but now furlough has been extended, job losses continue and Universal Credit applications are still sky high, this justification doesn’t stand up.
While renters unions across the country have been calling for rent cancellation to go hand in hand with the eviction ban, the Labour party has provided laughable opposition, showing just how little grasp it has of how expensive it is to be poor. Initially, it suggested a two-year period in which to pay back any rent unpaid during the pandemic. While mortgages can be extended to accommodate the offered holiday, workers can’t physically manifest lost work hours without becoming indebted to friends, family or loan sharks.
Although her local CLP has recently passed a motion calling for rent cancellation, the shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire initially said of the suggested policy: “There are people who are still in work, still able to pay their rent. And if you just cancelled rent, they would also benefit and they don’t need to.” These comments hark back to the New Labour era when the party was more interested in criminalising ‘benefit cheats’ than in supporting those in need.
In a country where the political class create one set of rules for us and another for themselves, where Dominic Cummings can evade £30k worth of council tax but a single mother can be sentenced to jail for not paying hers, we have to stop relying on those in power for protection.
Renters must realise the power they hold in their numbers, and join local tenants unions to protect themselves, their neighbours and their communities. If nobody will adequately legislate to protect renters, we must ensure our organisations are empowered to alleviate debt and eviction anxiety by protecting communities from bailiffs, landlords, and the police.
Whether you’re in Manchester, London, Scotland, Hull or anywhere else – join your local tenants union, and get your road, estate or tower block organised.
Beth Redmond is a housing campaigner based in Manchester.