In case you hadn’t noticed (and, let’s face it, you probably have unless you’ve been living under a rock), Britain is in the midst of an epic housing crisis which has been bubbling along since the '90s and only intensified in the last decade.
It’s why you spend so much of your money on rent. It’s why you live in fear of annoying your landlord. It’s why you’re not sure if you'll ever be able to buy a house. It’s why, if you have bought one, statistically you’re more likely to have done so because your parents were able to gift you a wad of cash.
Younger people, women and those on low incomes have been particularly affected. As the Women’s Budget Group reported last year, there is not a single place in Britain – not a single one – where it is affordable for women to buy or rent a home of their own.
The crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic we are currently living through has brought this structural inequality to the surface. It can no longer be ignored.
There are thought to be around 20 million people currently renting their home from a landlord in Britain. They earn less than homeowners, are less likely to have savings than homeowners (63% say they don’t have any) and more likely to be just one paycheque away from not being able to pay their rent.
How on earth will we pay our rent? And what happens if we can’t?
Unfortunately, the government’s response has been found somewhat lacking. However, they have announced some measures to help renters. So here’s what you need to know:
What to do if you can’t pay your rent
If you’re worried that you won’t be able to pay your rent because of coronavirus, stay calm. Do not follow the advice of Twitter communists and stage a rent strike with hammer and sickle in hand, tempting as that might be. Speak to your landlord or letting agent as a matter of urgency. Now is not the time to wage war but to try and have a reasonable discussion.
You’re not alone, even though it might feel like it. Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, told Refinery29: "Shelter’s emergency helpline has already seen a sharp rise in calls from people worried about losing their job, falling behind on their rent or being evicted during the coronavirus crisis.
"Our advice would be if renters are able to do so, they should definitely continue to pay their rent as normal in line with their tenancy agreement. And if they do start to struggle with paying the rent, they should speak to their landlord or letting agent as soon as possible, as they may be willing to agree to a repayment plan.
"The government is encouraging landlords and tenants to come to a workable agreement whereby any arrears are cleared at a later date. But if tenants do come to an arrangement with the landlord, they should make sure it’s realistic for them and if possible, get some evidence of what’s been agreed in writing."
Caitlin Wilkinson, the policy manager at Generation Rent, added that if you’re dealing with a letting agent who is being unhelpful, "you have a legal right to your landlord’s contact details. Most landlords would rather work with you than take a risk on an unknown tenant, especially in the midst of a pandemic. If your landlord has a mortgage, they can apply for a three-month mortgage holiday under the government’s new guidelines, enabling them to pause your rent. If a payment holiday isn’t possible, try to agree a repayment plan with your landlord, which will allow you to pay off any debt at an affordable rate."
Many people are, understandably, frustrated that mortgage holidays exist while rent holidays do not. And I’m sorry to say there is no legal compulsion for a landlord to pass their mortgage holiday – if they get one – on to you. The government has simply urged them to be "compassionate" which is something, at least.
Will I be evicted if I can’t pay my rent?
Okay, so, there has been a lot of confusion over evictions. In a nutshell, you’re not going to be evicted in the next three months because emergency legislation has been passed as part of the COVID-19 Act to stop that happening.
Initially, despite the government’s insistence that they had "banned" evictions, what they had done in practice was merely delay them. Housing lawyers and charities like Shelter pressed them on this because it just wasn't good enough.
As a result, late on Thursday 26th March the government announced that they had taken the criticism on board and introduced a full ban on evictions during the crisis we all now face. So, in short, no you aren't going to be forced out of your home while this is going on if you can't pay your rent.
Can I claim benefits if my income has been affected and I’m struggling to pay my rent?
Yes, yes you can. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak has announced that, from June (we know that's a while off), self-employed people will be able to claim 80% of their income in the same way as people who are employed by companies. On top of that, the Treasury has already laid out some measures which could help you right now.
Caitlin from Generation Rent explains: "If you’ve lost your job due to coronavirus, you may be entitled to universal credit, which includes payment towards your rent. However, you’ll have to wait five weeks for your first instalment, by which time you could be behind with rent, so it’s important to raise the issue with your landlord as soon as you can, even if you’re making an application."
It’s also worth noting that the chancellor has increased the local housing allowance – which is how benefits to cover housing for private renters get decided at a local level – to cover at least 30% of market rents in all areas. This is a relatively modest increase but it will make a difference to people. However, as we all know, rents have dramatically outpaced incomes in recent years so, to be blunt, it won’t be enough for the many who have high rent costs.
The message from the government is that if your income has been affected and you're struggling with rent, apply for universal credit because you may be entitled to support, even if you don’t think you are.
Finally, here are some helpful tips from Shelter’s emergency helpline manager Andrea Deakin on what to do if you fall behind with your rent:
– Don’t ignore the situation, get advice straightaway. Talk to one of Shelter's expert advisers who can take you through your options and advise on next steps.
– Always prioritise paying off any rent arrears before other non-priority debts, this is the best way to safeguard your home.
– Speak to your landlord or letting agent about your situation as soon as possible. They may be willing to resolve any payment problems and agree to a repayment plan.
– You may be able to make a claim for benefits like universal credit or housing benefit that could help you with rent payments and be able to apply for a discretionary housing payment from your local council. Visit Shelter's website to find out more about the help available.
– If you already claim some benefits, there might be an option to have rent arrears deducted from your other benefits like jobseekers’ allowance or income support. Get in touch with Jobcentre Plus or the Pension Service who should be able to tell you more.