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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 until 30 September 2021, there is a general requirement for a four month notice period. Exceptions apply, eg for cases involving serious rent arrears and anti-social behaviour.
  • From 1 October 2021 in England notice periods will revert to their pre-pandemic levels.
  • In Wales, with some exceptions, a notice period of six months applies up to 31 December 2021.
  • 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. New requirements placed on claimants seeking possession by Practice Direction 55C are in force until 30 November 2021.

Courts across the UK have recommenced consideration of repossession cases. In addition, bans on the enforcement of eviction orders by bailiffs have been lifted.

Financial assistance

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. From April 2021 LHA rates have been frozen in cash terms. Claimants may also apply for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs).

The Welsh Government announced Tenancy Saver Loans for private tenants whose income has fallen due to the pandemic, meaning they cannot afford their rent. This scheme is being 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 warn of a potential surge in evictions and homelessness when longer notice periods cease to apply.

As time has passed, evidence to suggest tenants are accruing substantial arrears has grown. Research by the Resolution Foundation (February 2021) estimated that rates of arrears across all tenures were “at least twice the level of arrears observed going into the crisis” by January 2021. The Foundation estimated that over 750,000 families were behind with their housing payments in January 2021, 300,000 of which contained dependent children. This would have implications for local housing authorities should arrears translate into evictions and homelessness over 2021/22.

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.”

Guidance

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities (updated 22 September 2021) and Understanding the possession action process: guidance for landlords and tenants (updated 1 September 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 11 August 2021).

Northern Ireland published COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants (updated February 2021).


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