In this time of national lockdown, decent homes are more important than ever. And the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many inequalities, forcing some people to the brink of homelessness
In my new role as shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Homelessness, I have put forward a number of pressing matters to the Secretary of State, posted below. I am continuously raising constituents’ concerns about the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including in letters to a wide range of government departments.
The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP
Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
2 Marsham Street
12 April 2020
Re: housing and homelessness in the Covid-19 crisis
Thank you for agreeing to speak on the phone on Tuesday 14th April with me and my colleague Steve Reed MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We look forward to working constructively with you in the national interest.
I’m writing to you to highlight concerns, questions and suggestions for dealing with the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis for housing and homelessness. I hope we can agree a way of working on these when we speak.
Public health in overcrowded homes
Recent public health reports have identified the Covid-19 risks of overcrowded housing and homes of multiple occupancy (HMOs). These homes tend to be occupied by people with low and insecure incomes. People living in them often have to continue to work outside the home. They cannot take the necessary precautions for safety inside the home because of sharing bathrooms and kitchens with many other residents and a lack of space to self-isolate.
This includes a large number of working people in private rented accommodation in cities, which some epidemiologists are identifying as putting them at increased risk of contracting Covid-19.
People in hostels, bail hostels and accommodation for asylum seekers are also in this situation.
I recognise that there are significant challenges to solving this problem but given the public health implications it is vital that these risks are considered and reduced or mitigated.
i. What steps are you taking to work with your colleagues in public health to consider the specific risks for people living in overcrowded homes and HMOs and to reduce or mitigate these?
2. Accommodation for victims and perpetrators of domestic violence
I was pleased to hear the announcement by the Home Secretary on Saturday 11th about the campaign and funding for helplines to assist with tackling domestic violence. However, there was no mention of the costs for housing.
Victims at risk of continued domestic violence need either to be able to remain in their homes with the perpetrator removed or accommodated in safe housing. Given the prominence shown to holding perpetrators to account, it should be possible for the Home Secretary to work with the police to ensure a proactive policy of removing perpetrators where possible and for your department to work with local councils and others to ensure legal orders to remove the perpetrator from the family home and provide security support so that more victims can remain in their homes with their children.
In order to measure unmet need for emergency housing for victims (or perpetrators) your department will need to consult specialist domestic violence services of course but also the police and local councils. Given the shortage of specialist refuge space this is likely to mean increased use of hotels and other non-specialist accommodation. Hotels and domestic violence specialist organisations are calling for this. There will need to be specific consideration of the safety and welfare risks of putting domestic violence victims and their children with other people and the need for specialist support.
i. Will you work with the Home Secretary and local councils as well as specialist domestic violence providers to ensure greater use of removal of perpetrators and increasing security for victims to stay in their own homes if possible?
ii. Will you work with specialist domestic violence organisations, councils and hotel chains to ensure that there is adequate specific and safe provision outside their homes, with access to specialist support?
iii. Will you further work with specialist perpetrator programmes, councils, housing providers and the Home Office to ensure adequate housing for perpetrators removed from the home as well as necessary risk assessment and criminal or civil proceedings to keep the family home safe for victims and their children?
3. Other homelessness accommodation
I welcome the measures the government has brought in to support the work of local councils in commissioning hotels for housing people who are street homeless and others at risk of homelessness. However, there are problems with capacity and with the management of risk and safety for different groups of residents. If councils do not have the resources to provide for these specific needs there will be a likelihood of increased risk to those staying in these hotels and for those working with them.
i. Will you develop the guidance and support for local councils to commission hotel rooms for the use of homeless people in order to ensure that there is sufficient provision for the management of specialist needs and risk?
4. Access to green space for people living in flats and HMOs
I understand and support the need for the measures to restrict movements outside the home. However, for many this is leading to the people with the least private access to open space having no opportunity to exercise in the open air. People living in tower blocks are often concerned about the cleanliness of communal areas leading to fears about leaving the home. Others are facing restrictions if their local parks close. This disproportionately affects people on lower incomes, who are likely to have less access to green space in any case. Mentions of opening up private school playing fields or golf clubs, whilst welcome, are irrelevant to people on low incomes who live nowhere near such facilities.
i. Will you work with landlords and leaseholders of tower blocks and HMOs to ensure the cleanliness of shared space so that residents can go in and out of their residences without health risks?
5. Privately rented accommodation arrears and evictions
The provision to halt any legal eviction proceedings during the first three months of the crisis is helpful. However, this does not deal with problems about what will happen after this period is over. This affects tenants who are dealing with a sudden drop or complete cessation of their income. Some will be eligible for furlough or SEISS. Many do not come into either category and are concerned that their application for benefits will not be sufficient to prevent arrears from building up, leading to a risk of debts and evictions after the three-month period is up.
This also affects small-scale landlords. This includes people working in the NHS, pensioners and others who rely on the income from rents on their property to pay for essentials and may also be liable for mortgage payments. The three-month mortgage holiday is welcome but does not remove liability for mortgage payments and does not provide a long-term solution to the problem.
i. Will you consider Labour’s proposals for removing the grounds for landlord possession for any arrears built up as a result of coronavirus during the next six months for an indefinite period and to defer rental payments beyond this crisis period with a further manageable payback period of up to two years?
ii. Will you work with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to find a way to support the loss of income to small-scale landlords who rely on rental income to top up low wages or as their sole or main source of income?
Students who have paid rent on accommodation for the summer term or in advance for Autumn are facing severe financial hardship as a consequence of the combination of loss of income from part-time work, ineligibility for benefits and continued liability for rents on accommodation they are not able to occupy or in some cases have been instructed to leave.
Many universities have waived the rent for university owned accommodation but not all. Other students are in private rented accommodation or rent via letting agencies who are not negotiating and who are showing no flexibility. Again, for small-scale landlords there may be a problem for those who rely on this income to top up low wages or pensions but the responsibility should not be falling on the students.
i. Will you work with universities, landlords and letting agencies and student representatives to find ways of sharing the responsibility for the finance of unused student accommodation fairly?
7. Guidance on moving home
There is an emphasis in the government guidance on negotiation between the parties rather than requirements to act reasonably. This is placing often very vulnerable people at risk of homelessness if they cannot negotiate with a landlord about remaining in a home they were due to leave, for example, or being charged for possessions they had to leave because local refuse and recycling services are not operating.
i. Will you issue guidance clarifying the responsibilities for renewing tenancy contracts for tenants unable to move home because of the Covid-19 precautions to ensure they are not at risk of homelessness?
8. Gas and other safety checks
The legal requirements on landlords to ensure such checks are carried out and those on tenants to comply with these checks appear to contradict the guidance on social distancing. This is causing anxiety for tenants and landlords and concerns from tenants about possibly breaching their tenancy agreements if they do not comply. However, of course we do not want tenants to be put at risk because of unsafe appliances. This is a tricky balance and needs clear advice.
i. Will you issue guidance to landlords, tenants’ associations and housing rights organisations about gas and other safety checks covering whether, how and with what precautions they should be carried out?
I look forward to speaking to you and to working with you on these and other urgent housing and homelessness problems during these unprecedented times.
Thangam Debbonaire MP
Member of Parliament for Bristol West
Shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Homelessness
CC: Chris Pincher MP, Minister for Housing; Steve Reed MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government