The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has had significant implications for households’ ability to retain their homes, particularly those who are renting. In response, governments across the UK introduced a series of housing support measures, some of which were amended and extended after March 2020.
Extended notice periods for tenants
The current position is summarised below:
- Regulations which came into force in England on 1 June 2021 amended schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 to provide that up to 30 September 2021, there was a general requirement for a four month notice period. Exceptions applied, eg for cases involving serious rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.
- On 1 October 2021 in England, notice periods reverted to their pre-pandemic levels.
- In Wales, with some exceptions, a notice period of six months applies up to 24 March 2022.
- In Scotland, with some exceptions, a six month notice period applies up to 31 March 2022.
- In Northern Ireland, 12-week notice periods apply up to 4 May 2022.
Suspension of possession proceedings
The Master of the Rolls issued a Practice Direction to suspend all ongoing housing possession action in England and Wales from 27 March 2020, initially for a period of 90 days. This period was extended, but repossession actions in the courts recommenced from 21 September 2020. Requirements placed on claimants seeking possession by Practice Direction 55C remain in force for claims made before 1 December 2021. For other claims, the requirement on a claimant to give the court information about the known effect of coronavirus on the defendant and their household remains in place until 30 June 2022.
Courts across the UK have recommenced consideration of repossession cases. In addition, bans on the enforcement of eviction orders by bailiffs have been lifted.
In March 2020 the Chancellor announced an increase in Housing Benefit and Universal Credit “so that the local housing allowance (LHA) will cover at least 30% of market rents” within a Broad Rental Market Area. In April 2021, LHA rates were frozen in cash terms. Policy costings for the Autumn Spending Review and Budget 2021 forecast a further freeze in LHA rates for 2022/23 (745KB, PDF). This freeze was confirmed on 25 November 2021. Claimants may also apply for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs).
On 23 October 2021, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced a £65 million support package “to support low-income earners in rent arrears”. The funding is being allocated to local authorities. It is in addition to a £500 million Household Support Fund announced in September 2021 to help “vulnerable households across the country with the cost of food, energy, water and other essentials.”
The Welsh Government established Tenancy Saver Loans for private tenants whose income fell due to the pandemic, meaning they cannot afford their rent. This scheme has been replaced by a Tenancy Hardship Grant.
Scotland has a Tenant Hardship Loan Fund and The Private Rent Sector Landlord (non-business) COVID-19 Loan Scheme.
Calls for more support in England
Homelessness charities and tenant bodies warned of a potential surge in evictions and homelessness following the end of longer notice periods.
As time has passed, evidence to suggest tenants are accruing substantial arrears has grown. On 8 December 2021, the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) reported on research carried out by Dynata. A survey of 2,000 private renters in England and Wales found average rent debt owed as a result of the pandemic had increased by 41% since May 2021. Affected tenants’ average debt increased to £1,270, up from £900 in May.
Research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in October 2021 found “3.8 million low-income households across the UK are in arrears and 4.4 million have had to take on new or increased borrowing through the pandemic.”
Several bodies representing the interests of landlords, tenants and homeless households joined forces in February 2021 to call for a targeted financial package to help renters pay off arrears accrued since March 2020, and “a welfare system that provides renters with the security of knowing that they can afford their homes.”
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee published the interim report of its inquiry to assess the impact of the coronavirus crisis on homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector on 22 May 2020. The report urged the Government to take steps to protect renters, including:
- Amend existing housing legislation to give judges more discretion in eviction cases concerning rent arrears accrued as a result of the pandemic.
- Accelerate plans to introduce a Renters’ Reform Bill to abolish section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions.
- Maintain the Local Housing Allowance Rate (LHA) rate at the 30th percentile long-term and consider what the impact on renters and the wider rental market would be of raising LHA rates further.
The Government’s response was published on 25 June 2020. The Committee issued a further call for evidence on 16 October 2020 and published the report of their findings on 31 March 2021. The Committee called on the Government to:
- publish “a proper exit plan for the private rented sector from national and local restrictions;”
- deliver a financial package to support tenants to repay rent arrears caused by covid-19 as a priority;
- review the decision to freeze LHA rates in cash terms and temporarily boost discretionary housing payments; and urgently introduce the Renters’ Reform Bill.
- The Government response (25 May 2021) detailed the package of support put in place during the pandemic and committed to “continue to monitor the effectiveness of our extensive financial support in protecting tenants and landlords, including through the English Housing Survey Household Resilience Study.” As noted above, October 2021 saw the announcement of a £65 million support package.
The DLUHC, previously the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), published COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities (updated 10 December 2021) and Understanding the possession action process: guidance for landlords and tenants (updated 10 December 2021).
The Welsh Government has a series of guidance notes under the heading Renting a home: coronavirus.
The Scottish Government published Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for private landlords and letting agents (updated 3 December 2021).
Northern Ireland published COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants (updated 17 November 2021).