Amid a housing affordability crisis, the Government must act to help private renters struggling with debt
By Genevieve Richardson, Senior Public Policy Advocate, StepChange Debt Charity
The end of Section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction promises to bring security for private renters, but will the Renters (Reform) Bill support the most vulnerable private tenants in rent arrears?
Our recent report, Trapped in Rent, reveals the dangers for those in problem debt who rent in a private rented sector (PRS) that is increasingly expensive and insecure. Private tenants in rent arrears generally receive far less support from their landlord than social tenants, despite sharing increasingly similar characteristics of financial and other vulnerability.
The Renters (Reform) Bill proposal to end Section 21 evictions is welcome and will, if implemented with care, deliver more security and stability for private renters. However, the shift to emphasis on other grounds for possession, including Ground 8 of the Housing Act 1988, for repeated rent arrears, risks undermining the security and stability promised by the abolition of Section 21. The 2021 English Private Landlord Survey shows that the most common reason for ending tenancies under Section 21 was rent arrears (46%).
Here StepChange is concerned that housing legislation currently allows private landlords to apply for an automatic eviction order from a court when tenants fall behind on rent by two months or more (under Ground 8 of the Housing Act 1988), without seeking to support tenants to deal with debt problems and agree an affordable repayment plan.
In fact, the government proposes to introduce a new automatic ground for eviction for ‘serious repeat rent arrears’ where a tenant has been behind on rent on three occasions over a three-year period, regardless of whether the tenant repays the arrears or not.
This isn’t as reasonable as it may sound. Our experience of advising private sector tenants shows financial shocks are common and increasing cost of living pressures have reduced financial resilience and increased insecurity.
This leads us to believe that automatic evictions for rent arrears are inappropriate — support needs to be offered first, to try to help people recover. While we agree there must be recourse for landlords, it is equally (if not more) important to ensure that tenants are supported to deal with debt and maintain tenancies as far as possible.
To achieve this, the government can look to the social housing sector, where tenants who fall into arrears are better supported. For social tenants, rent arrears is a discretionary (rather than mandatory) ground for eviction. That means a court can intervene and adjourn proceedings where landlords have not taken sufficient steps to support tenants in arrears.
A Pre-Action Protocol sets out steps social landlords should take to support tenants before making a possession claim via the courts. This includes signposting to money and debt advice, providing time to apply for any benefits (including local housing benefits and Discretionary Housing Payment) and seeking to agree an affordable repayment plan.
We strongly believe that equivalent measures — making rent arrears a discretionary (rather than mandatory) ground for eviction, within the framework of a Pre-Action Protocol — should be introduced in the private rented sector and that the Renters (Reform) Bill should be amended to achieve this.
National polling supports our stance. Three quarters of people (78%) think that before pursuing an eviction, private landlords should be required to refer tenants behind on rent to advice organisations to try to help them agree a repayment plan. Only a quarter of people (23%) think landlords should be able to get courts to automatically evict tenants who are two months behind on rent without being obliged to provide any help or assistance to the tenant beforehand.
The Mortgage Charter, recently agreed with the Treasury and the FCA, also offers a blueprint. Underpinned by FCA rules, this aims to ensure that repossession is only taken as a last resort. Renters need similar protections. Currently, social renters are better supported than those in the private sector, as evidence from our clients shows:
“I contacted my rent officer and she actually told me about a scheme they have which was a one-time hardship payment which I could claim. It was enough to wipe out the arrears at that time.”
Social tenant and StepChange debt advice client
In contrast, private renters who got into rent arrears told us how unaffordable repayment demands put their home under threat.
“After nearly nine years at the property at the time, I was immediately, after 31 days, served with an eviction notice and had to borrow money to pay my arrears in full fear of being evicted. [I received] no support from [the] landlord at all.”
Private tenant and StepChange debt advice client
Clearly, individual private landlords are not always able to replicate the support of a bank or a large housing association, but it is reasonable for a pre-action protocol to require them to take steps before pursuing eviction, like referring tenants to regulated debt advice and agreeing affordable repayment plan.
Here it is essential that the government ensures that both advice and support for payment difficulties and cost of living pressures are actually available and accessible for vulnerable tenants.
Introducing discretion for courts would not impose an open-ended constraint on landlords recovering rent arrears or possession. In cases where a tenant wilfully and without reason does not pay rent, or if the tenancy is genuinely unsustainable, courts would be able to exercise judgment and grant possession.
As the Renters (Reform) Bill goes through Parliament, the government can deliver on its on its promise of “a New Deal [for] those living in the Private Rented Sector; one with quality, affordability, and fairness at its heart.” It’s important to make Ground 8 and the wider support framework for struggling tenants fit for purpose if this aspiration is to be fully realised.