Eviction ban ends: how can renters fight back?

On 21 September the eviction ban ended in England and Wales. The ending of this pandemic protection measure just as we enter the second wave of COVID 19 means that hundreds of thousands of people may face homelessness in the coming months while Covid-19 is still widespread. Escee writes about the size of the problem facing renters and organised resistance to evictions in the UK.

Photo: Adrian Scottow / Flickr

Part of the government’s initial Covid-19 response was a halting of eviction hearings back in March, meaning no new evictions could be heard in court. This was then extended until 20 September, but there has now been no further extension in England and Wales. This now puts at least 322,000 private renters who went into arrears since the start of the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of other renters who were in arrears beforehand, at risk of losing their homes to vengeful landlords. This is a major attack on workers across the country who are being made to suffer and pay for the costs of the pandemic in money and lives.

The targeted nature of ‘who must pay’ is made obvious by other announcements from the government ,which is happy to provide far greater extensions and protections to businesses, whose protection from eviction has been extended to the end of the year, and to mortgage holders, whose payments have been suspended for months and will continue to be so until the end of October. So those with mortgages are protected from getting behind in payments, and businesses are protected from eviction proceedings, but individual tenants are left to fall into arrears and face homelessness unless they can quickly catch up. This will be impossible for most people as the stalled economy and the planned ending of furlough in October means that few people will see increases in their income to make up for previous shortfalls, and vastly more are instead faced with unemployment and the resulting loss of income. The government has taken the time to group together sections of society and only extended protections to those they consider valuable, leaving the rest to suffer. Property-owners and profit-making businesses receive guarantees and protection, with the state acting as an arbitrator to try and ensure conflicts between these groups are smoothed over with cheap loans and grants, while those not seen as central to the capitalist system (or to Tory political support) are expected to continue to pay what is demanded of them and fend for themselves. An indication of the viciousness and callousness of the Tories’ approach is the immediate resumption of evictions of asylum seekers who have had their cases refused, meaning that some of the most vulnerable and destitute people in the country will now face homelessness from the middle of October.

The notice period for evicting private tenants has been extended to six months, but with major exemptions, like for long term arrears. So, while evictions for new filings supposedly should not take place until March 2021, in practice, many threats will present themselves before then: evictions going ahead under these exemption clauses, the intimidating impact of issuing evictions notices at all, and the various other pressure tactics that landlords can use on tenants to get them to leave, as well as flat-out unlawful evictions. This means that a steadfast defence of tenants is needed right now to keep people housed and their health protected, rather than forcing relocations and the merging of households, as well as increasing homelessness, during a pandemic.

In the midst of government corruption and incompetence around protective equipment, virus testing and case tracing, and confused messaging around where and how it is appropriate to gather with others, the failure to guarantee separate and safe shelter for everyone during the pandemic is am extreme example of the government’s incapability of creating an effective response to the pandemic. If the most basic and effective step to stop the spread of Covid-19 is self-isolation, then how can it be right to take away a person’s home, where they would do just that? The initial ban, the extension of it (it was initially due to expire in August) and the variations in responses between the nations (Scotland extended the ban in August until March 2021) show that government action protecting tenants is possible, but across much of the country the politicians have reached the end of their willingness to do so. Now it falls to us to organise and fight for the continuation of universal protections, while acting locally to protect people threatened with eviction until we win the wider struggle.

Thankfully, there are several community or tenant unions operating around the UK focused on this exact issue and prepared to fight over the coming months. These are groups of tenants organising themselves who pressure landlords and letting agencies to fulfil their obligations to their tenants, to protect their members from harassment from landlords, and to prevent evictions. All of these are important but the campaigns around keeping people in their homes and eviction resistance are going to be critical in the coming days, weeks and months. ACORN, a tenants union with branches across the country, has already held training sessions in person to practice how members can gather outside properties where tenants are being evicted to prevent bailiffs from entering, while obeying social distancing and legal assembly guidelines. ACORN is also working to build community defence teams to connect local members together who are ready to perform such actions at a moment’s notice. Uniting members together like this will be vital to successfully keeping people in their homes, as only active defence measures will be able to prevent evictions from happening on the day, and with lockdowns and travel restrictions coming into force over the coming months, wider call-outs to a dispersed membership may not be able to bring poeple to the property in time to help. Having physically local members communicating and organising with each other can also become a social base for other campaigns on issues affecting people in the area, and for creating political movements rooted in areas which might not have seen or experienced collective organisation ever before.

Local collective action can resist particular landlords and agencies and keep some people in their homes, but continually rising debt and increasingly aggressive landlords is not a sustainable situation, and bigger campaigns aimed at a permanent resolution to the crisis are necessary to resolve it. Tenants all under the same landlord or agency can organise together to hold rent strikes so that nobody pays until those tenants in debt have theirs cancelled and other protections guaranteed for the period of the pandemic. Wider rent strikes, like the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign by London Renters Union, aim for a more generalised rent strike to force the government to cancel rent debt entirely, make the eviction ban permanent and end restrictions such as benefit bans and migration status checks when renting a property. ACORN have their own campaign called ‘Housing is Health’, which calls for an immediate end to Section 21 evictions, rent waivers for the period of the crisis, greater protection for lodgers (who are not protected at all by the current eviction restrictions), and also continuing the mortgage freeze to argue for housing security for all, as the increased risk of homelessness for any reason increases the risks to us all. Momentum is also promising to work with these two unions in stopping evictions, potentially introducing many Labour members to the power and value of local organising and non-electoral campaigns, something that was not developed under Corbyn when he was leader, but may now help to bridge the gap between electoral politics and more local power, as well as providing more support in more areas for those in need. As organising at work remains difficult, with pandemic responses limiting worker gatherings as well as the merging of home and work space for millions of workers now working from home, the ability to organise around another shared area of struggle could be an important and rewarding avenue for building working-class power.

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Eviction resistance: links and resources

If you are a private renter, and especially if you are threatened with eviction, you need to be a member of a tenants’ union. The leading tenants’ unions are:

ACORN: (England and Wales outside London)
Contact a branch about eviction issues: https://acorntheunion.org.uk/contact/

Join a Community Protection Team to help others: https://acorntheunion.org.uk/community-protection/

LONDON RENTER’S UNION
LIVING RENT SCOTLAND

Volunteer to take action: https://www.livingrent.org/action

*** If you’re threatened with eviction, do not leave the property until you’ve spoken with a tenants’ rights organisation. ***

Useful legal information to know and understand your rights can also be found via the Shelter website.

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