“No-one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic,” housing secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted in March last year. One year later, it is clear that this was neither a guarantee, nor a promise; it was barely even a half-hearted wish.
Because, in spite of the ongoing ban on evictions – first extended for six weeks on 8 January and now running until the end of May this year – the figures tell a different story. They indicate that eviction attempts by landlords doubled during the winter lockdown, with over 2,000 eviction orders served in the last quarter of 2020 alone. Country court bailiffs have forced out more than 500 households. (Landlords evicting hundreds during lockdown by Jon Stone, Independent, 16 February 2021)
Housing crisis worsening exponentially as unemployed workers sink deeper into debt
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The latest research from Shelter shows that 24 percent of private renters have had to borrow money to pay their rent; 18 percent have cut back on food or skipped meals, and 12 percent have cut back on heating their home. More than one in four private renters fear becoming homeless.
In January, according to the Resolution Foundation, over 750,000 families were behind on housing payments, and rent debts over the pandemic stood at £375m. (Eviction orders being issued despite UK government Covid pledge by Robert Booth, The Guardian, 28 February 2021)
Figures from the Observer have already shown more than 70,000 households made homeless since the pandemic began and over 50,000 living under the threat of homelessness, with Nick Ballard, head organiser with tenants’ union Acorn, stating: “A combination of illegal evictions, reactivated processes from before the pandemic, tenants under pressure to leave before eviction, and lodgers who have never been protected has led to hundreds of thousands facing homelessness.” (70,000 households in UK made homeless during pandemic by Chaminda Jayanetti, The Guardian, 9 January 2021)
When there has been so much lip-service paid to the idea that we’re all in this together, and that the government would be embracing each and every one of us, why has the reality been so divergent?
The ‘evictions ban’ that enables evictions
A major factor in this is the loophole silently introduced when the eviction ban was extended in January, which enables landlords to evict “anyone with rent arrears over six months … even if the shortfall was accrued during the pandemic. Previous versions of the ban required debt to have been built up over nine months or more, not including that accrued after the start of the first lockdown.” (Landlords evicting hundreds during lockdown by Jon Stone, Independent, 16 February 2021)
It is clear that the tenants targeted via use of this loophole will be the most vulnerable, the worst-off, and already the most at risk of homelessness. The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) – formed conveniently in April last year from a merger of two separate landlords’ associations, and now representing over 90,000 members – lobbied vociferously against all extensions of the ban. It is in service to these landlords that the government introduced the new loophole.
It is hard to imagine they needed to lobby all that hard. In an article titled Government by landlord, the Tribune indicated that in April last year that 24 percent of Tory MPs were landlords themselves. The proportion of landlords across all parties was 17 percent. These figures stand in stark contrast to the proportion of landlords in the general population, which was estimated at around 5 percent.
We have the situation in which a newly-consolidated landlord association is ‘pressurising’ a government within which landlords are already grossly over-represented. Small wonder that the Tribune argues: “It isn’t a fluke that they support policies which harm tenants – it’s class politics.” This would be a dire situation even without the added misery of the pandemic.
So whilst it is understandable that Acorn wishes the government to “commit to an indefinite eviction ban for the duration of the crisis”, or that Labour MP David Lammy implores ministers to “give people security in their homes by strengthening the ban so that it means what it should”, it should not be a surprise when these exhortations fall on deaf ears.
The eviction ban that enables evictions can now be set alongside the food hampers without food and the test-and-trace app that couldn’t test or trace in an ever-growing constellation of absurdist failures and deceptions. These paradoxes repeatedly reinforce the fact that the ruling class that staffs all parties in Westminster will use its legislative powers – even in times of crisis – primarily to line the pockets of the corporations they serve, and secondarily to line their own – and no amount of outrage or bickering over deliberately-impotent policy and legislation will change that.
This state of affairs is not unique to the pandemic. It will not change until the working class holds power for itself and wields that power in its own interest. We must learn in Britain today what the Parisians understood so well 150 years ago:
“The proletarians of Paris,” said the central committee in its manifesto of 18 March, “amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs … They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”