Protections for renters elapse on 23 August and renter security must be a priority, argues Rebecca Woolley.
Around 180,000 families in Wales live in the private rented sector and these households have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 crisis.
Whilst people in all housing tenures have seen their employment and income negatively affected, renters are more likely to have been furloughed or lost a job. Renters are also least able to weather these economic shocks. The majority have less than £200 in savings, and a quarter have no savings at all.
Citizens Advice Cymru research found that a third of renters have either fallen behind or expect to fall behind on their rent in the last few months. During lockdown, the number of people coming to us with issues relating to the private rented sector has doubled compared to the same period last year. We’re seeing more people with issues relating to rent and other fees or charges, problems with letting agencies, and possession actions.
The Welsh Government has long promised action to increase the security of tenure in the private rented sector. Legislation to strengthen the rights of tenants was due to be introduced this year, having originally been planned for 2016 but delayed due to administrative issues. The pandemic has delayed it once again.
On the 23rd August, the pause on evictions (introduced to mitigate the effect of Coronavirus for private renters) in England and Wales will be lifted – and this could have serious consequences for tenants in the private rented sector in Wales. We know that the current crisis has been financially devastating for Welsh families, and our advisers have helped many households who have struggled to keep up with rent payments.
While landlords have been able to apply for mortgage holidays, there has been no compulsion for them to pass those breaks on to tenants, and over 250 people have contacted Citizens Advice Cymru during lockdown because they have been threatened with eviction or issued a possession order.
In less than two months, renters across Wales face losing their homes, incurring moving costs, and undergoing huge upheavals in their relationships, work and education. At worst, they may be made homeless.
Loss of rented or tied accommodation is the single biggest reason for people being threatened with homelessness. The second biggest is rent arrears. Lifting the pause on evictions has major implications for the Welsh Government’s plans for preventing and ending homelessness.
Renters in Wales urgently need longer-term protections in place before emergency Covid-19 regulations come to an end. Currently, private sector tenants can be issued with a Section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction notice which allows landlords to end a tenancy without giving a reason.
Whilst the Welsh Government is exploring the option of introducing a voluntary pre-action protocol for private sector landlords to support affordable repayment of arrears, with Section 21 powers still in place this could easily be bypassed by rogue landlords and will leave vulnerable people at risk.
The Welsh Government should use its powers to commence an amended Renting Homes Act which would provide much greater security for tenants by extending the notice period for a ‘no fault’ eviction to 6 months.
Legislation has – understandably – been squeezed out by the pandemic, but it was already overdue. With the news that the First Minister will make a statement on the Legislative Programme on 15th July, the Welsh Government must take this opportunity to act.
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In the interim, they could use the temporary powers granted under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the minimum notice period for section 21 evictions from 3 to 6 months. This will give tenants who are subject to eviction proceedings more time to plan, prepare and save to find suitable alternative accommodation.
Finally, they need to help prevent the escalation of financial problems for tenants in the private rented sector by taking steps to encourage people to check what benefits or support they are entitled to. This should include targeted support for tenants in the private rented sector who have fallen into rent arrears as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
We are likely to feel the financial effects of the pandemic for some time to come, and many people in Wales will continue to see huge disruptions to their income. But we’ve already seen the Welsh Government use their powers in creative ways to help those people who have fallen through the gaps of UK-wide schemes – for example, the extension of the Discretionary Assistance Fund, which helps those facing financial hardship with essential costs.
And once again, on the issue of the private rented sector, the Welsh Government has the power to craft a Wales-specific policy response which will protect Welsh households facing the worst financial consequences of the outbreak. They must act now to protect hundreds of families at risk of losing their home before it is too late.
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