Wracked by rent but fighting back against the pandemic penury

Ben Kritikos says a bad situation is getting worse as governments ignore the tenants’ plight

The coronavirus pandemic has widened what were cracks in our social welfare into yawning chasms. The economic downturn resulting from social distancing and lockdown measures taken to tackle the spread of this virus has worsened an already-dire situation for precarious workers and people living in rented accommodation. The crisis lays bare the harsh reality of a housing system defined by precarity, where so many tenants are just one payslip away from homelessness. And now, for many, those payslips are gone.

Before the pandemic, rents in Scotland’s private housing market were skyrocketing, particularly in urban centres like Glasgow and Edinburgh. A report by the Scottish Government found that average rents for two-bed proper ties in the latter have increased by 46.3%, or more than double the rate of inflation, since 2010. That trend repeats across most of Scotland’s rental market, and successive governments have proven either woefully ineffective in addressing it or to be themselves complicit.

The insupportable pressure on tenants caused by the pandemic is as much a political issue as it is an economic one. As real-term wages have stagnated as a result of over four decades of neo-liberalism, people in rented housing are trapped in an impossible situation. Tenants who have been furloughed, lost or risk losing their jobs altogether are by and large the ones already struggling: private renters are more likely to be in precarious and low-paid work than homeowners; they’re more likely to be living paycheque to paycheque, and they’re less likely to have savings. With little or no financial buffer to weather the crisis, the healthcare crisis is made so much worse by their financial precarity. All of this plays out against a backdrop of sustained political attacks on social security: ten years of brutal austerity, Universal Credit benefit reforms, the evaporation of social housing and the erosion of state support to meet the cost of soaring rents, notably in the private sector. The Scottish government has yet to address this honestly or adequately.

While both Holyrood and Westminster government have encouraged tenants to apply for Universal Credit, rolled out a furlough scheme for some workers, and have encouraged landlords to offer rent reductions, these measures amount to mere sticking plasters that don’t go far enough. While Living Rent did successfully secure a six-month eviction ban, there is nonetheless little to ensure that tenants are not crippled by debts or faced with eviction once this six-month ban runs over. In March, the Chancellor announced mortgage lenders are required by law to offer homeowners who need it a three-month mortgage payment ‘holiday’, which has since been extended to landlords. The Scottish Government has said that these payment freezes ‘should’ be passed on to tenants, but without a legal requirement for them to do so, the encouragement is left to landlords’ discretion and, thus, ineffective.

After intense campaigning by Living Rent, the Scottish Government agreed to ban all evictions for six months from 1 April, so that no one will lose their home due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, if a tenant is unable to pay their rent because they cannot go to work, they must still come to an arrangement with their landlord, who can demand payment of arrears when the pandemic is over. In other words, landlords are being offered a safety net while tenants, who may be out of work for months through no fault of their own, are left to fend for themselves. For tenants, this is simply unfeasible and unfair, and demonstrates a wilful ignorance of how renting actually works—our housing system is not a free market between buyers and sellers. People need homes but landlords rarely need rental profits. Both the British and Scottish governments are unequivocally showing themselves to be in the pockets of landlords.

Living Rent continues to fight for tenants living on the knife’s edge. Though social distancing measures have put a pause on the door knocking we rely on for outreaching tenants, local branch organisers and volunteers continue to keep in touch with members by phone and text. Likewise, our Member Defence teams remain available and committed to sharing their expertise, especially around problems that tenants are facing during the pandemic, including negotiating for a rent reduction. We’ve published FAQs with answers for all tenants who are experiencing issues with their landlords and need to know their rights. We’re also scaling up local wins into national demands, with our newest, Hygiene Kills the Virus, campaign building on one Glasgow branch’s success in forcing their social landlord to introduce extra cleaning measures.

But, overall, more needs to be done at the national level. That’s why we’re pushing the Scottish government and housing authorities to act decisively to protect tenants at risk of losing everything as well as working with allies ACORN and London Renters’ Union to coordinate a UK-wide response. We’ve also launched a survey on work and housing conditions under the coronavirus in order to better support our members and strengthen the national case for further government action. But let’s be frank, the housing crisis is about to get infinitely worse and politicians, who all seem to be homeowners or landlords, have no idea what it’s like to struggle to pay rent or negotiate with your landlord. This pandemic has made an already bad situation worse and in order to avoid the worst, tenants themselves will have to force the government into action—and Living Rent will be fighting with everything we’ve got to make sure that happens.

Ben Kritikos is a writer, greengrocer and editor at the independent press, Spaghetti for Brains. For more information about Living Rent, see https://www.livingrent.org/