Legislation has been quietly tweaked to mean that renters can now be issued eviction notices for arrears built up since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has emerged.
On Friday, the government extended a ban on bailiffs enforcing evictions in England until at least 21 February following the reimposition of a national lockdown to bring COVID-19 cases under control.
But later on the same day the ban extension was enacted, regulations were published removing a major protection for tenants falling behind on rent as a result of the crisis for the first time.
Previous legislation tabled in November carried a provision that eviction notices could be served only for arrears where the amount owed to the landlord totalled “equivalent to nine months’ rent” and that “any unpaid rent arrears accrued after 23 March 2020 must be disregarded”.
The updated legislation from Friday, which came into effect on Monday, lowers the arrears threshold to six months’ rent and removes any reference to disregarding debt built up during the pandemic.
The London Renters Union (LRU), which spotted the change, called it “desperately cruel”.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said last March while announcing the first measures to protect renters: “The government is clear – no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.”
Worklessness has soared since COVID-19 hit the UK as restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of the virus forced businesses to shut their doors.
The National Residential Landlords Association recently warned of a “rent debt crisis” in the private rented sector, estimating that 840,000 tenants across England and Wales have built up arrears because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alva Gotby, an organiser with the LRU, said: “There are now more than 800,000 people in rent debt and the government is putting them all at risk of homelessness.
“The government promised repeatedly that no one would lose their homes because of the pandemic. Clearly, they lied.
“The government must immediately halt all evictions and write off rent debt that renters have built up during the pandemic.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been approached for comment.