In April the government implemented a ban on landlords evicting tenants. Though eviction orders continued to be lodged, none have been acted upon by the courts. This scheme was due to end on Sunday 23 August, and now has been extended only to 20 September. The Scottish government has extended the ban to March 2021.
The housing charity Shelter estimates that 227,000 people are in rent arrears, which amounts to 2% of private tenants. Ben Beadle, the chief executive of the National Residential Landlords' Association is quoted in the Financial Times saying that: “The overwhelming majority of tenants are paying rent as normal.” (That's residential tenants. Shops and offices have been paying maybe only half their rent due, and some of their owners have been demanding a nine-months rent holiday for the pandemic).
A lot of workers have been in a position to carry on paying their rent only thanks to furlough. The British Medical Journal reported on 20 August on an "89% increase in food parcels distributed by Trussell Trust food banks" and "35% of children skipping at least one meal a day, with 10% skipping more than one meal per day".
The Food Standards Agency has reported that 10% of the people were accessing foodbanks in June and 9% in July. Many of those keeping up with the rent are already being forced to cut back on essential household spending.
This situation is likely to get worse in the coming months as the government carries out its plan to end furlough at the end of October. The scheme has provided for 9.6 million workers, and around three million are still dependent on it. The official Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that the unemployment rate is likely to hit 12% by the end of the year. With furlough and jobs being taken away at the same time, the number of tenants in arrears and facing eviction is sure to rise.
The history of the labour movement provides us with lessons on how to fight back. After the Second World War, the Communist Party (trying to regain ground after its abject support for Churchill during the war) organised occupations of disused army bases, holiday camps, and, in one case, luxury flats in Kensington. They demanded the tenancies be recognised by councils.
During the First World War, when slum landlords moved to raise rents in Clydeside by as much as a third, working-class women led the fight in the form of a rent strike. During the miners’ strikes of the 70s and 80s, which involved miners going without pay for months, bailiffs found themselves unable to enter many mining communities to carry out evictions because of local anti-eviction organisation.
Our tools are rent strikes, anti-eviction pickets and occupations. Tenants’ unions like Acorn, Living Rent, and the London Renters' Union are likely to be important to the coming struggle. Beyond immediate resistance the Labour Party and wider labour movement must bring pressure to bear on the government to extend the evictions ban.
Thangam Debbonaire, Shadow Minister for Housing, has written to the Secretary of State for Housing, but a letter does not make a campaign. Our movement should also demand an extension of furlough; the Spanish government is discussing extending furlough until at least the end of the year.
The Tory government will not readily concede to workers’ demands on housing. They are much more likely to look out for landlords. We need to rally the labour movement to fight and raise the demand for a workers’ government that can break apart the housing market and make safe, good-quality housing a right enjoyed by all.
• Background article: bit.ly/dk-housing