In these trying times, social solidarity is what will hold the fabric of our communities intact. That’s why I’ll be thinking of our overworked, underpaid NHS staff and single parents with mouths to feed when supermarket shelves are empty and the cupboards of the better-off are full. I’ll be thinking of those living in overcrowded, damp social houses. I’ll be thinking about the kids who can’t afford the technology to do their homework online and how the Chancellor’s ever-changing budget won’t budge just enough to protect our most vulnerable. But most of all, I’ll be thinking about the landlords.
Without profiting from the insecure earnings of their tenants during this crisis, how will the landlords afford their plush getaways to the sunny south of France in the summers to come?
Landlords should fear no more. New measures, legislated by the UK government last week and currently being used by Stormont, have ensured that landlords will be protected from the aftermath of an economic disaster that has caused stock markets in all corners of the world to crash. Those who own properties will be given a three-month mortgage break to alleviate any financial pressures they may face. “Financial pressures” is a conveniently jovial synonym for what I imagine, put simply, is their tenant’s inability to make ends meet and pay their rent.
Unlike their property-owning counterparts, renters are left anxious, confused and scared; not knowing if they’ll be able to afford basic necessities like food in the weeks to come, let alone their rent which, on average, is a third of their income. The only protection for tenants is that they are guaranteed non-eviction for three months. There is no offer of a three-month rent holiday. This means that renters are still required to pay rent whilst their landlord is excused from paying their mortgage. Renters are offered no job security from irresponsible and unaccountable employers or their government. Thousands have already been laid off or are kept on, precariously employed but reduced to zero hours. In turn, many renters, who are more than ever unlikely to own property without guarantee of a secure wage, will have no means of paying rent. Without income, renters cannot be demanded to pay rent. Half of young people in the UK have no savings; no back-up plan and, without support from their government, no hope. Living paycheque-to-paycheque. Tenants can no longer express faith in a system that, without their hard work propping up our communities during this pandemic, would fail.
The government has a unique and important role to play in governing its entire people during this crisis. So far, it has failed. Advice published by the UK government last week suggested that “at the end of this period, landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, taking into account tenants’ individual circumstances.”
Resolving these problems in private is unfair on renters. Without government intervention and support, evictions will skyrocket in three months’ time. There is no rule in place that will guarantee renters’ protection from eviction after this period. If renters cannot pay rent in the next three months because they have been laid off, are on a zero-hour contract with no income or there is a five-week waiting list for Universal Credit, fine. But what happens when this three-month period ends? Unreasonable landlords will demand the three-month’s rent payments up front. Some landlords may kick and splutter and tell their tenants that their rent payments are their only form of income. What they are telling you is that their only job is to own your home. And apparently, they’re the skilled workers.
In Belfast, for example, M&M Property Services owns over two-hundred properties in the Holylands area. Under the new rules advised by the UK government, there will be no hardship for the multi-millionaire who manages these two-hundred properties. Instead, when this three month period ends, it’s likely that student tenants will suffer in the form of eviction. Lots of students rely on shift work in the hospitality sector and gig economy to top up the rent payments that their loans don’t cover. With the likelihood that many of them will lose this vital income, it is the students who will suffer in three months’ time and not their multi-millionaire landlord. When the income of many renters will inevitably be cut, to force them to pay rent is wrong.
Leaving things that should be publically handled to work out in the private sector, unfettered, is what the Conservative administration has done since it came to power in 2010. That’s why, even in unprecedented times of crisis, this response is unsurprising. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to change it. If those who are in government won’t protect the vulnerable, then we will have to take matters into our own (clean and sanitised) hands. Across Belfast, The Student Renters Group has been organising; ensuring that students know their rights as renters, lobbying politicians, providing legal support and offering the communities the protection against COVID-19 that landlords will not give. The Student Renters Group is demanding that there should be an immediate rent amnesty, with no repayments. They are campaigning for early contract termination without penalty.
Often as young people, students, zero-hour workers and renters, we feel powerless. But where we lack in having a social safety net, we make up for in solidarity.
You can contact and follow what The Student Renters Group are doing on Facebook, or by searching for @SRGBelfast on Twitter.
Olivia Fletcher is a student at Queen’s University Belfast and Labour Party activist. She is a youth facilitator and the student coordinator for the QUB Mind your Mood campaign.