Thousands of renters could lose their homes around Christmas if the Government does not give judges powers to stop automatic evictions of tenants hit by the coronavirus outbreak, charities fear.
Renters have been protected during the Covid-19 crisis by a Government ban announced in March, extended in June and due to end on Monday.
If this is lifted without extra protection, charities are warning that tens of thousands of outgoing tenants could be unable to find or access affordable homes, prompting a “devastating homelessness crisis”.
Separately, the British Medical Association has warned of a potential surge in Covid-19 cases if the ban is not extended and homelessness increases, with homeless people more likely to have health conditions increasing their vulnerability.
Shelter said by the end of June some 174,000 renters had been warned by their landlord that they are facing eviction, and 58,000 moved out after being asked to leave during the lockdown.
It estimates almost a quarter of a million renters had fallen behind on their rent by the end of June.
But the National Residential Landlords Association said it is wrong to assume every tenant in arrears due to Covid-19 is at automatic risk of eviction, and extending the ban is not necessary.
Policy director Chris Norris said landlords “have been powerless to take any action against those who cause misery for fellow tenants and neighbours”.
It is unlikely there will be a rush of possession hearings come Monday.
County courts will need to adapt to social distancing measures which will affect the volume of cases, while there is also a backlog of cases from before the pandemic.
Any landlord who has lodged a claim before early August will be required to issue a reactivation notice confirming they still wish to pursue it, with 21 days’ notice before the case can be heard.
They must also set out the effect of the pandemic on the tenant or risk proceedings being adjourned.
These delays mean it is unlikely any cases would be heard until mid-September.
It is understood that the most serious cases will be prioritised, such as those where extreme arrears have built up, or involving anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse.
This suggests the bulk of Covid-19 cases are not likely to take place before the end of October – around the same time the Government’s Job Retention Scheme is due to stop.
Up to half a million people could be at risk of being evicted in the coming months, the District Councils Network (DCN) estimates.
Councillor Giles Archibald, the DCN’s Better Lives spokesman said: “As the cliff edge nears, little has been done to ensure the welfare system will support those vulnerable families at risk of homelessness, and we are now at the precipice without a plan.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said time is “fast running out” for the Government to act.
Without the ban, any renter who has built up eight weeks’ of arrears can be automatically evicted, she said, with judges “powerless” to intervene.
She told the PA news agency: “The knock-on effect of this will be really severe. It’s not something that we’re going to see next week, but it’s something that we’ll see in the coming months, as winter sets in and around Christmas time. That’s when we could see lots of people being evicted.
“If we’re entering into a deep recession, this is not the time that we want to risk having thousands of people approaching overstretched homelessness services that cannot hope to provide them with the safe homes they’ll need.”
The charity is calling for judges to be given discretion on handling cases involving coronavirus, for the benefits cap to be lifted and for housing allowance to be further increased.
Without action, it warns the country will see rising homelessness “heaped on top of an economic catastrophe”.
Another charity, Crisis, said extending the ban was the “obvious” choice amid rising unemployment and future uncertainty.
Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive, said ideally the ban should remain in place until “well into next year”, but that if this does not happen the Government must introduce other measures.
He told the PA news agency: “If we go back to precisely the same set of affairs, set of circumstances and policies and financial support and legislation that we had pre-pandemic, we’re going to get the same outcomes, except they’re going to be even worse, because a lot of people are going to be impacted economically by the pandemic.
“So this is one of the most worrying moments I think there’s been.”
A Government spokesman said: “The Government has taken unprecedented action to support renters, preventing people getting into financial hardship and helping businesses to pay salaries – meaning no tenants have been evicted at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are working on how best to continue supporting renters and landlords during the pandemic and will make an announcement on the next steps shortly.”