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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, the Government introduced a series of housing support measures, some of which were amended and extended after March 2020. In England, from June 2021 onwards, the protections are subject to phased relaxation, as set out below.

  • Provisions were included in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the notice periods that certain tenants in England and Wales are entitled to receive when a landlord is seeking to recover possession of their homes. These notice periods were subsequently amended. The current position is summarised below: 
    1. Regulations laid in England on 28 August 2020 amended Schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 to introduce notice periods in England which vary depending on the nature of the tenancy and the Ground on which the landlord is seeking possession. In summary, if a landlord is not seeking to evict a tenant for anti-social behaviour, serious rent arrears, or where the tenant has no right to rent, a minimum notice period of six months’ applies. For example, a section 21 notice served on an assured shorthold tenant on or after 29 August 2020 must give the tenant six months’ notice. These notice periods were initially in force until 31 March 2021, but on 10 March 2021 the Government announced they would remain in place until 31 May 2021.
    2. Regulations coming into force on 1 June 2021 further amend schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 to provide that until 30 September 2021, the general requirement for six months’ notice is reduced to four months. Exceptions apply as set out above, but where there are rent arrears of at least four months, the required notice period will be four weeks. From 1 August 2021, for rent arrears of less than four months a notice period of two months will be required. The Government has said “Subject to the public health advice and progress with the Roadmap, notice periods will return to pre-pandemic levels from 1 October.”
    3. On 23 July 2020 the Welsh Government laid Regulations to temporarily increase notice periods from three to six months in respect of assured or assured shorthold tenancies (with some exceptions). The six month notice period in Wales initially applied to notices served on or after 24 July up to 30 September 2020, but Regulations came into force on 29 September 2020 to provide for a default notice period of six months for notices served after that date up to 31 March 2021. Lesser notice periods apply to cases involving anti-social behaviour or domestic violence in respect of assured, assured shorthold, secure and regulated tenants. New Regulations came into force on 31 March 2021 to provide for extended notice periods up to 30 June 2021.
  • The Master of the Rolls issued a Practice Direction to suspend all ongoing housing possession action in England and Wales from 27 March 2020 for a period of 90 days. On 5 June 2020, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, announced an extension of the moratorium on possession actions for a further two months. The Government confirmed that the courts would start to process repossession cases again from 24 August 2020 but on 21 August a further 4-week suspension to 20 September was confirmed. The Civil Procedure Rules were amended at short notice to achieve this. Repossession actions in the courts began again from 21 September 2020.
  • A new Practice Direction (PD 55C) was due to come into effect on 23 August 2020 in preparation for the lifting of the stay on possessions. The PD subsequently came into effect on 20 September 2020. It placed new requirements on claimants seeking a repossession order and was initially in place until 28 March 2021, this period was extended to 31 July 2021 on 29 January 2021 (subject to reviews).
  • The Government said that work was underway to provide that when the moratorium on evictions was lifted, private landlords in England and Wales would be required to adhere to a revised version of The Pre-Action Protocol for Possession Claims by Social Landlords. The most recent version of Guidance for Landlords and Tenants (May 2021) makes no reference to publication of a new protocol but on 17 September 2020 the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) published Pre-Action Plan: Managing arrears and avoiding possession claims. The Government is funding a pilot Housing Possession Mediation Service (HPMS), which is available for at least 6 months from February 2021.
  • On 10 September 2020 the Secretary of State announced that bailiffs would not enforce evictions where local lockdown measures were in force which restrict access to premises to “prevent tenants being forced out of their home at an unsettling time in areas when the public health risks could be greater.” Following the introduction of new national restrictions in England on 5 November 2020, The Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction and Taking Control of Goods) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force on 17 November 2020. The Regulations prevented the enforcement of repossession orders by bailiffs against tenants other than in the most serious circumstances. The restrictions were due to expire on 11 January 2021, but on 8 January the Government laid The Public Health (Coronavirus) (Protection from Eviction) (England) Regulations 2021 to extend the ban on enforcing evictions to 21 February 2021. The 2021 regulations introduced a new exception (see section 2.4). On 14 February 2021 the Government announced a 6-week extension to the ban to 31 March 2021. A further extension to 31 May 2021 was announced on 10 March. The Government has confirmed “The current ban on bailiff-enforced evictions, introduced as an emergency measure during lockdown, will end on 31 May.” Bailiffs “have been asked not to carry out an eviction if anyone living in the property has COVID-19 symptoms or is self-isolating.” Similar bans on enforcement action over Christmas 2020 were introduced in Scotland and Wales and were subsequently extended. The ban has been extended in Scotland, subject to regular reviews, to 30 September 2021. The ban in Wales extends to 30 June 2021, also subject to regular reviews. Certain exceptions apply.
  • The Chancellor announced an increase in Housing Benefit and Universal Credit “so that the local housing allowance will cover at least 30% of market rents” within a Broad Rental Market Area. In 2021/22 LHA rates have been frozen in cash terms.

The suspension of ongoing housing possession action from 27 March was acknowledged as a significant step in providing security of tenure for most tenants in England and Wales during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published COVID-19 and renting: guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities (updated May 2021) and the Welsh Government has a series of guidance notes under the heading Renting a home: coronavirus.

The Scottish Government legislated to strengthen tenants’ security of tenure and legislation passed by the NI Assembly has applied a 12-week notice to quit period to all tenancies. The measures in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have been extended, with some changes. The Scottish Government has published Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for private landlords and letting agents (updated May 2021) and in Northern Ireland there is COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants (February 2021).

Calls for more support

The resumption of eviction action in England and Wales on 20 September 2020, albeit on a limited basis, led commentators to ask questions about the implications for landlords and tenants. Homelessness charities and tenant bodies warn of a potential surge in evictions and homelessness when longer notice periods and the ban on enforcement finally ends.

There were calls to use the extension on the eviction ban for 4 weeks to 20 September to introduce more protections for those facing financial difficulties. As time has passed, evidence to suggest that tenants are amassing substantial arrears has mounted. 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.”

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.

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 to the Committee 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 Government response is due by 31 May 2021. The Committee is calling 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;
  • temporarily boost discretionary housing payments; and
  • urgently introduce the Renters’ Reform Bill.

Other relevant Library papers

Assistance available for homeowners, including mortgage holidays and a moratorium on possession actions, is covered in the Library briefing paper: Mortgage Arrears and Repossessions (England). There is also a paper on assistance for rough sleepers: Coronavirus: Support for rough sleepers (England).

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