Statement on COVID-19

By GMHA (@gmhousingaction)

In this time of crisis we demand radical action across the housing sector.

Throughout our region a fifth of the population are living in the private rented sector (PRS), with the figure closer to 30% in Manchester. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people will be off sick and/or experiencing reduced income or working hours.

Statutory sick pay will not be enough to cover rents in many cases. The average rent in Manchester — using 2018 figures — is £775 per month. A month of statutory sick pay is £377. This amount — amongst the lowest in Europe, covering around 20% of average income — would not cover average rents in any of the boroughs in Greater Manchester.

Indeed, research by the BBC shows that £377 – the entire monthly sick pay amount – would only cover rent for a one-bedroom property in 15% of the UK. This means that people living in the PRS are likely at risk of eviction, should the outbreak continue. It is vital that the security and safety of tenants is not dependent on their landlords goodwill.

The community union ACORN have issued a set of demands on the national government, including emergency rent freezes for renters with the virus or self-isolating, an emergency freeze on all section 21 and section 8 evictions and a moratorium on any evictions of housing associations and council tenants. We back this call and urge all to sign their petition here.

We also must acknowledge that there is a severe public health risk connected to the conditions in the PRS. Damp, mould and poor insulation will inhibit the recovery of anybody self-isolating. The public health impact of retrofitting has been well documented.

Homes in the UK are notoriously poor quality, and those renting in the UK lack the protection afforded to many tenants in Europe. The spread of this virus will both exacerbate and be exacerbated by many of these issues.

 

In light of this, GMHA therefore calls immediately for:

  • The implementation of ACORN’s demands;
  • A waiver on utility bills in the broadest sense: gas, water, and electricity, alongside phone contracts and broadband, with the suspension of download limits and speed caps – as AT&T have done in the US. Immediate measures must be taken to ensure those on pay-as-you-go meters are not forced to go without vital services;
  • A freezing of rental payments, and freedom for tenants to break out of fixed-term tenancies early, should they need to care for family members or friends living elsewhere;
  • Emergency retrofits to homes in the PRS that are in a state of disrepair.
  • Statutory sick pay is dangerously low. Members of the House of Lords may claim up to £313 a day; statutory sick pay is £377 a month. SSP should be increased to 80% of average earnings, matching best practice internationally;
  • At the local level, and notwithstanding any further powers which are to be vested with local government, we call for the activation of Severe Weather Emergency Protocol measures, which allows exceptional steps to be taken to provide accommodation for the homeless of our region, without the usual restrictions on access, e.g. ‘no recourse to public funds’. Whilst this is an impromptu step, it is entirely necessary;
  • Further to this, given a likely downturn in the bookings at the city’s hotels, we call on the council to look into using SWEP powers requisition these empty rooms to house the homeless, as well as anyone currently living in unfit accommodation.
  • Finally, we call on the council to issue a moratorium on all squat evictions.

 

This crisis is set to have a profound impact on a society already damaged by years of austerity. In the coming weeks and months we need to be there for one another and develop mutual aid across our communities. Emergency measures will be taken, and we call for those outlined above to be part of these steps. When we move past it, we need to ensure that our society does not go back, basing prosperity for some on the precarity of so many more.

The motto of the City of Salford is ‘The welfare of the people is the highest law’. This must act as a guiding principle for all the machinery of local government across our region over the coming weeks and months. Private profit in housing must not be put above public need, either in this crisis or in its aftermath.

 

 

14 March 2020