The coronavirus pandemic has placed the spotlight firmly on Scotland’s housing crisis. Hundreds of thousands of tenants across the country have been confronted not just with a health crisis, but a financial one too: as people’s workplaces close their doors, rent becomes unaffordable. That is why Living Rent is calling for an urgent ban on evictions and non-repayable ‘rent holidays’ for all tenants affected by the pandemic.
But with the news moving so fast, and a flurry of contradictory announcements, things can be confusing. So what’s actually happened?
- On Wednesday the 18th, Aileen Campbell MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (the Cabinet Secretary in charge of housing) announced that the amount of time a tenant needs to be in rent arrears before a landlord could begin proceedings would be increased from 3 months to 6 months.
- On the same day, it was announced that the Housing Tribunal, where landlords can apply to evict people, would be closed until further notice.
- Later that day, the UK government announced that they would ban all evictions, but this measure only applies to England and Wales because housing is a devolved power in Scotland
- The UK government also announced that they would extend ‘mortgage holidays’ to landlords, with a view to these savings being passed on to tenants who were struggling to pay their rent
- Crucially, they say that this money - both the tenants’ rents and the landlords’ mortgage - would need to be repaid once the pandemic is over
- On Thursday the 19th of March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that nobody “should be” evicted during this time, but didn’t commit to any specific measures to do this - though she did say she wasn’t ruling anything out
There are key problems here:
- Extending the threshold for eviction because of rent arrears from 3 to 6 months is a welcome move, but there are many other grounds that landlords can and do use to evict tenants. For instance, if a landlord claims they want to sell the property or move in themselves, the tenant has next to no scope to challenge it. The landlord doesn’t even need to prove it.
- Tens of thousands of tenants in Scotland are still on short-assured tenancies, where landlords do not require any ground at all to evict tenants. They have been offered no protections at all.
- While in theory a landlord would have to go through the Housing Tribunal to get a possession order, it is a vanishingly small number of cases that actually go through the Tribunal - perhaps three or four percent. The overwhelming majority of evictions go uncontested.
This means that the Scottish Government, categorically, have not banned evictions, and Living Rent has been inundated with tenants being served with notices to quit in just the last few days. The Scottish Government urgently needs to clearly ban all evictions.
There is also the crucial issue of actually paying the rent. The Scottish Government’s official advice to tenants struggling with financial hardship is to reach out to their landlords, but the enormous power imbalance makes this an extremely risky game. There is nothing at all to compel landlords to be lenient, and Living Rent has already seen examples of tenants who have approached their landlord to discuss this, only to be threatened with eviction if they don’t pay.
Additionally, the measures announced by the UK government - to extend the mortgage holiday to landlords, but require tenants to pay the money back at some point in the future - are woefully insufficient. If tenants are out of work for months, through no fault of their own, it is not reasonable to expect them to find the money to pay this back. Put simply, tenants cannot be expected to foot this bill: these rents must be written off or covered by the government.
TL;DR: The Scottish Government categorically have not banned evictions, but they desperately, urgently need to.