The government will extend its eviction ban for another month, ministers have announced – but loopholes for landlords will stay in place.
Most renters will now be protected from bailiffs until 31 March after another decision made just a week before the lapse of the current period.
But campaigners point to exemptions that are already seeing many of those worst hit by the pandemic summoned to court for possession hearings and facing homelessness.
Under exemptions introduced at the start of 2021, landlords can now evict tenants who accrue six months of arrears in rent – even if it has been built up during lockdown.
Previous versions of the ban allowed evictions for people who had not paid nine months of rent, but crucially excluded any debt built up since March so that people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic were secure.
Ministers say the revised approach is a “balance between protecting tenants and enabling landlords to exercise their right to justice”.
But it goes back on an earlier promise by Mr Jenrick that nobody would be made homeless as a result of economic damage inflicted by the government coronavirus response.
“Last-minute decisions and half-measures from the government are putting people’s homes at risk,” said Labour’s shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire.
“Ministers promised nobody would lose their home because of coronavirus, but the current ban isn’t working. The government should give people security in their homes, by strengthening and extending the ban for the period restrictions are in place.”
The London Renters Union (LRU) branded the eviction ban policy “fake” and called for the loopholes to be closed.
“This new fake evictions ban allows landlords to send in the bailiffs and kick tenants out of their homes in the middle of a pandemic,” the union wrote in a letter to Mr Jenrick shared with The Independent.
“Many of our members were up to date with their rent payments before the start of the pandemic. But just like another 800,000 renters around the country they have lost income since March 2020, fallen into rent debt, and are now at immediate risk of being evicted.
“Many people in this situation have possession hearings this month and, thanks to your rule change, they could be made homeless in a matter of weeks.”
Some renters hit by the new loopholes already have possession hearings scheduled for next week, despite the country being in a national lockdown.
Victor Yuan, a tenant from east London who is a member of the union, told The Independent: “I lost my job in the theatre industry at the start of the pandemic. When I told my landlord I couldn’t afford rent, he responded by threatening me, changing the locks on my property and cutting off the electricity.
“I managed to get back in to my home with support of the London Renters Union, but of course I still can’t make the rent. I have no recourse to public funds, so the homelessness team at the council has refused to help me – not that they have much capacity to help anyone.
“Now the government’s latest rule change means that I’ve got to go to court next week for a possession hearing. My doctor has prescribed me long-term medication because of the impact the stress has had on my mental health. If I lose the court case, there’s nothing to stop a bailiff evicting me from my home.
“The government says they’re keeping renters safe but that’s clearly untrue – I could be made homeless next week.”
The LRU says the full eviction ban should be reinstated by amending the Housing Act, that rent debt should be written off, and that the government should hold to its commitment to abolish Section 21 evictions and introduce rent controls.
The charity Citizens Advice estimates that around half a million tenants are in arrears, with the average amount owed being £730.
Landlord groups criticised the extension of the ban. Ben Beadle, chief executive of the National Residential Landlords Association said the policy “means debts will continue to mount to the point where they have no hope of paying them off” and “will lead eventually to them having to leave their home and face serious damage to their credit scores”.
He added: “The government needs to get a grip and do something about the debt crisis renters and landlords are now facing. A package of hardship loans and grants is needed as a matter of urgency. To expect landlords and tenants simply to muddle through without further support is a strategy that has passed its sell-by date.”
The eviction ban policy only applies to England because housing is a devolved issue in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Wales and Scotland separate eviction bans are expected to run until the end of March, and in Northern Ireland, rules requiring landlords to give 12 weeks’ notice before moving to eviction proceedings have also been extended to March.
Housing secretary Mr Jenrick said: “We have taken unprecedented action to support renters during the pandemic including introducing a six-month notice period and financial support to help those struggling to pay their rent.
“By extending the ban on the enforcement of evictions by bailiffs, in all but the most serious cases, we are ensuring renters remain protected during this difficult time.
“Our measures strike the right balance between protecting tenants and enabling landlords to exercise their right to justice.”