Shelter submission: HCLG Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector

Summary

Decades of underinvestment in social housing has left hundreds of thousands of people without a safe home they can stay in during this pandemic, risking infection in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation. Some at the sharpest end of the housing emergency are unable to access the emergency shelter they need to stay safe off the streets because of strict eligibility tests that, without government guidance, councils are still applying. An unaccountable and expensive private rental sector and weakened welfare system have buckled under the pressure of coronavirus, putting millions more people at risk of homelessness as the health crisis gives way to a perilous financial landscape.  

Last year, more than 4.7 million people came to Shelter for help with housing and homelessness problems across England and Scotland. Our emergency helpline is there for anyone in urgent need of housing advice. Through just our helpline, in the last month we received a total of 24,134 calls, an increase of 18% compared to the previous month. 60% of calls and messages were directly related to the impact of coronavirus. Homelessness remains a major issue even during the coronavirus outbreak. Of the calls answered, 37% of people were currently homeless, and 33% were at risk of homelessness.

We are working with homeless individuals and families who are desperate because they have nowhere safe to stay during the pandemic or are in homeless accommodation where they cannot follow public health advice. Their lives are at risk until a vaccine or successful treatment is widely available. These include people who aren’t entitled to homelessness assistance even during the pandemic because their immigration status deems them ineligible, and people who can’t claim Universal Credit because they have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).

Furthermore, the impact of lockdown is already resulting in further homelessness, with growing numbers likely as a result of the subsequent recession. Loss of employment, reduced hours and sickness/self-isolation is resulting in rent arrears, poverty and homelessness. We are seeing increasing numbers of people contacting us because they have lost their job or income and cannot pay their rent. Our recent polling suggested 1.7 million renters expect to lose their jobs by the end of June. Meanwhile, 1.5 million new claimants have applied for Universal Credit (UC), many of whom have never previously claimed benefits.

The government’s restoration of local housing allowance rates to cover the bottom third (30th percentile) of local rents is welcome. But those who rent a modest home on an average local rent still face growing arrears and the fear of eviction. Many thousands more haven’t benefitted from the restoration of rates because they are hit by the benefit cap as a result of being unable to work for more than 16 hours a week and are not covered by the grace period of exemption. Even before the rates were raised (in November 2019), 76,398 households had their benefits capped. Many more will be capped now more are claiming and now that the rates are higher. The benefit cap leaves families with huge shortfalls and growing rents arrears facing eviction and homelessness. The benefit cap can also act as a financial barrier to leaving an abusive partner and finding alternative accommodation forcing people to choose between abuse or homelessness.

We welcome the government’s action to extend possession notice periods and suspend possession proceedings to ensure most renters can’t be evicted during until the end of June. But this is only prolonging the inevitable for people who’ve lost work and continue to rack up arrears because local housing allowance doesn’t cover average rents. They need on-going protection from arrears and eviction due to coronavirus when the eviction suspension ends. Without this, evictions and homelessness will increase, and local authorities, who are already struggling financially as a result of the pandemic, are likely to have to deal with a big spike in homeless applications, and rough sleeping will undoubtedly increase.

The government must build on the very welcome emergency measures already implemented to ensure rough sleeping and homelessness do not increase, and safe and stable homes are available.