The Chancellor must help renters in the budget to prevent mass unemployment and homelessness
The longer the Chancellor waits to take action, the more rent debts will increase, writes Lord Bird. | PA Images
We need a targeted financial package to help renters pay off arrears built since the beginning of lockdown and a welfare system that gives them financial security to continue living in their homes.
Last week, we at The Big Issue, published a joint letter to the Chancellor, calling for the upcoming budget to put an end to the rent debt crisis which currently haunts 500,000 private renters.
The organisations involved include Crisis, Citizens Advice, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Money Advice Trust, The Mortgage Works, National Residential Landlords Association, Nationwide Building Society, Propertymark, StepChange Debt Charity and Shelter – a group so up close and personal to this crisis, that the demand cannot go unnoticed.
The letter aims to bring the interests of renters and the rentees together – after all, this is one issue in which there should be no division between us. We must go forward with as much pressure as possible to ensure the government does its best to avoid the destruction of landlords’ interests and the destruction of tenants’ interests.
This is achieved through the two asks.
First, a targeted financial package to help renters pay off arrears built since lockdown measures started in March last year. This helps to sustain existing tenancies and keep renters in their homes – whilst also ensuring rental debt does not shrink their chances to find homes in the future.
Second, a welfare system which arms renters with security, knowing that they can afford to continue living in their homes. It is within a crisis, that the value of security exponentially rises. The government increased universal credit and housing benefit because it recognised the current system was unsustainable in the midst of economic crisis – I commend this.
Reversing the universal credit increase threatens to plunge 700,000 people under the poverty line
However, they have now chosen to freeze housing benefit rates from April and are considering reversing the universal credit increase which would threaten to plunge 700,000 people under the poverty line, starting off a cycle which is gruelling to break.
Our letter calls for reconsideration. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that long-term prevention needs a seat at the table – all tables. That’s why I introduced my Wellbeing of Future Generations bill into Parliament, and that’s why, in July, as bleak unemployment statistics were being churned out, The Big Issue launched its Ride Out Recession Alliance. The aim was to prevent mass unemployment and mass homelessness, recognising that the costs were too high not to.
The Big Issue is a social enterprise which has dealt with the symptoms of poverty for almost 30 years. We were comfortable. And yet, when the pandemic highlighted our weaknesses, we pivoted. We’ve just launched a pilot scheme which means you can now buy a digital subscription to The Big Issue from your local vendor via LinkedIn. And to minimise the impact of this crisis, in January, we launched our RORA jobs and training toolkit to promote opportunity.
I am proud of the steps our government has taken already – the ban on evictions, furlough, bounce-back loans – promising that no one would become homeless due to Covid-19 was a courageous move in itself. But to fulfil this promise, the government must embrace the unfamiliar and focus on the longer-term.
The longer the Chancellor waits to take action, the more rent debts will increase and the greater the risk becomes of renters ending up homeless.
Lord Bird is a crossbench member of the House of Lords and co-founder of The Big Issue.