Private renters struggling with arrears lack key protections and support — the Government should use the Renters (Reform) Bill to close the gap

StepChange Debt Charity
4 min readMar 13, 2024

By Genevieve Richardson, Senior Public Policy Advocate

Like housing charities and other non-profit organisations working with vulnerable people, we warmly welcomed the Renters (Reform) Bill, and its stated aim to rebalance rights between tenants and landlords, which for decades has been unfairly skewed towards landlords.

The Bill’s headline promise is to abolish section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions, a leading trigger of homelessness. Since the Government committed to reforming the private rented sector in 2019, the legislative process has been marred by delays and concerns that reform will be watered down. Indefinite delay would be a disappointing blow to private tenants in desperate need of greater security.

As a debt advice charity, we are also concerned that ending section 21 evictions will lead to greater use of the automatic grounds for eviction of private tenants in rent arrears. This is because the most common reason landlords and estate agents end tenancies is because the tenant was in arrears. Without section 21, landlords will inevitably look to other options.

Currently, housing legislation creates a number of ‘automatic’ grounds for eviction, including having two months or more of arrears (Ground 8). In fact, the Bill will introduce a repeat rent arrears ground (Ground 8A). Landlords could use this mechanism to automatically evict tenants who have experienced two months’ worth of rent arrears, on three occasions in a three-year period, even if the tenant can repay them. This means that it will be easier to evict struggling tenants than ever before.

Private tenants are increasingly financially vulnerable

For those in financial difficulty, like our clients, affordability pressures mean that people’s rents eat significantly into their monthly income. For those renting privately, the burden is particularly onerous. Our research shows that among our clients, private renters spent a far greater proportion of their incomes on rent (37%) than social renters (29%) and mortgagors (27%). This is a familiar story; nationwide, private rents outpace wages and frozen Local Housing Allowance rates make private rents unaffordable for people in receipt of Universal Credit.

One of our clients, Lucy [not her real name], a 36-year-old single parent whose opportunities for work are limited due to caring responsibilities, found that her Universal Credit payments did not even cover half of her rent. She tried to see if she could get on the social housing waiting list, but was told it was 12 years long. She told us that she cannot find anywhere affordable in the area, and said “all my money goes on rent and it’s making me feel stuck and scared about the future.”

Lucy’s is a common story, where the familiar advice to work more in order to afford everyday essentials belies the complexity of people’s lives and affordability pressures coupled with the dearth of social homes locks millions of people out of a home they can afford. For tenants who have no choice but to accept unaffordable rents, and for many of our clients who take out credit or go without essentials in order make rent, which our research indicates, the threat of losing one’s home looms large.

Added to that are the short-term financial shocks that derail a person’s finances and, for private renters, threaten the roof over their head as well. If a tenant experiences a relatively short period of financial difficulty and falls behind on their rent, a landlord has ‘automatic’ grounds for eviction. This means common life events we see regularly at StepChange, like the loss of a job or a relationship breakdown, not only have an impact on finances, but on housing security too.

And what we know is that private renters who are evicted often struggle to find similarly priced homes to suit their needs, forcing them to accept even higher costs or homes that are unsafe or have less space than is practical for their family.

The current framework that creates the threat of eviction after building up rent arrears is overly punitive, particularly in the context of increasingly unaffordable housing and widespread and serious cost of living pressures.

What’s more, the reforms will remove a vital lifeline for many from their local authority. Under current legislation, a tenant served with a section 21 eviction notice for rent arrears is legally entitled to support from their local authority to prevent them becoming homeless. This is because the ‘no fault’ ground indicates that a tenant has lost their home unintentionally. If section 21 is removed without equivalent protections, and if a repeat rent arrears-related eviction can be interpreted as intentional, then tenants evicted for rent arrears may not be entitled to the same support.

A practical way to support struggling renters to keep their tenancy

For all of these reasons, we are calling for a ‘Tenancy Support Programme’ for private sector tenants who fall into rent arrears.

Social tenants are afforded support and balanced protections if they fall into rent arrears through the Pre-Action Protocol for Social Landlords. This means landlords must signpost tenants in arrears to support like benefits and debt advice, give tenants time to apply for benefits and make reasonable efforts to agree an affordable repayment plan. Judges have discretion to suspend eviction proceedings if landlords have not taken these steps.

The Mortgage Charter reflects similar rights for mortgagers to a significant amount of support before they face repossession action. Private renters are unique in their lack of protections, despite increasing likelihood that private tenants will experience financial difficulty or have additional vulnerabilities due to the fall in size of the social rented sector and parallel increase in private tenancies.

Making it easier to evict tenants in rent arrears during a deepening cost-of-living crisis is a deeply misguided policy. The Government should now use the Renters (Reform) Bill to introduce equivalent support to help private renters in financial difficulty stay in their homes and find affordable pathways to repay their arrears.



StepChange Debt Charity

We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.