By Lily Gordon Brown (@lilygbrown)
Covid-19 has frequently been depicted by as a virus that “does not discriminate”. Epidemiologically speaking, this is correct. So long as it can find someone — anyone — to latch onto and thus spread, it will continue to live aggressively amongst us for the months ahead. However, looking at the virus and its effects through a socio-political lens, we see a very different picture emerge. In March, it quickly became clear that the economically vulnerable would bear the brunt of a national lockdown. Whilst low-paid frontline workers have continued operate in terribly unsafe conditions, corporate shareholders have profited from the crisis. Perhaps best understood through Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ theory, the crisis has been an opportunity seized by the rich to get richer.
Housing has been a key site of anguish throughout the pandemic. Despite thousands of renters losing access to work, facing unemployment or receiving inadequate furlough, nobody in the political class would advance arguments for rent cancellations. While unexpected from Conservative party, it was emphatically disappointing when Thangam Debboanire, Labour’s newly appointed Housing Minister, announced that such a proposition would be “un-Labour”, even going so far as to suggest that such a policy would infringe landlords’ right to property — their ‘right’ to collect your rent.
As ever, there was a disconnect between the elite and the rest: as renters faced the reality of looming rent arrears, landlords across the country were offered a mortgage holiday. While landlords have been subsidised and continued to collect rents, rent debt has increased, with an estimated half a million renters now in arrears. The strong case for the abolition of landlordism far predated the pandemic, yet the past 10 months has only served to strengthen it.
The only, albeit mild, saving grace for tenants was the introduction of the eviction ban. During the first wave of the pandemic, the government put a halt on court proceedings regarding possession, thus banning house evictions entirely.
Despite landlord lobbying otherwise, tenant unions across the UK played a significant role in pressuring the government to delay the lifting of the eviction ban. The likes of ACORN UK and London Renters Union have relentlessly campaigned not just to extend the ban but bring a permanent end to Section 21 — which has long been a key goal in the fight for renters’ rights. It is almost certain that it is thanks to these efforts that the ban has remained in place until now.
Since the summer, we have witnessed a number of fluctuations in the eviction ban. In September, whilst court proceedings reopened, bailiffs were not able to enforce eviction. Furthermore, evictions were only to be served in the most ‘serious [of] circumstances’, not including for rent arrears accrued during the lockdown months.
However, in the past few days a new and more pernicious iteration of the eviction ban has arrived. Whilst the government has extended a ban on bailiff evictions for another six weeks — a sticking plaster rather than a solution — they have quietly introduced legislation regarding what constitutes ‘serious circumstances’ to those who are in at least six months of rent debt. Any rent arrears accrued throughout the lockdown are now to be included. This loophole was quietly embedded in the legislation on Friday night, and puts thousands more at risk of losing their homes and their livelihoods.
Though current Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said in an interview with the Guardian that ministers had to do more to “help homeless and lonely people”, legislation he has enacted is set to see homelessness spiral out of control in the coming months. It seems the landlord lobby, of which a fifth of Conservative MPs are part of, have won this battle.
It is clear that Boris Johnson continues to look out for his elite circle of playmates and them alone. All the while, renters are at risk of losing their homes. Despite these circumstances being partly symptomatic of the pandemic, this shift in housing policy sheds new light on the government’s priorities, clearly reflecting their elitist class interest.
In the first lockdown, there was a sense of national unity — echoed in Johnson’s repetitive “thank you” to the country for “doing [our] bit”. But this time round, the spin doctors are clearly bored of the mantra “we’re all in this together”, they’re tired of faking universal rhetoric. To those at the top, we must be regimented back into our individualised way of living.
With this in mind, collective tenant organising is now more vital than ever. Tenants’ unions have seen record growth over the past year, and the likes of ACORN, LRU and GMTU have seen tangible wins against the landlord class. This battle on behalf of our communities must continue. Unionising is clearly becoming our only means of confronting authority to keep us safe, reflected in the NEU’s win against the government just last week. Renters' unions must continue to grow, and with it their power to resist evictions and win broader transformative changes to the housing landscape in this country.
Lily Gordon Brown is a graduate from the University of Leeds and an active member in ACORN Leeds. Her writing also appears in Tribune Magazine.
11 January 2021