During this coronavirus outbreak Scotland’s 340,000 private renters need greater protection and we are calling for the Chancellor to boost social security payments to ensure tenants don’t end up mired in debt and at risk of homelessness.
Over the last few weeks our helpline has received an increasing number of calls from people who have had their income dramatically reduced or disappear altogether because of the coronavirus pandemic. They are worried about how they are going to afford their bills and pay their rent.
What we are hearing from our services is reflected in the numbers of people turning to the social security system for help. Between the 16th and the 31st of March 950,000 people in the UK applied for Universal Credit – the main income support benefit. That is nearly 10 times higher than the number of applications in an average two-week period. Many of these people have never had to rely on the social security system before.
Tenants must seek help immediately if they cannot pay their rent, advice can be found on our website.
Changes have been made, but the UK Government needs to do more
The Scottish Government has passed legislation that will protect most tenants from being evicted for 6 months during this pandemic period. However, many households are still at risk of falling into rent arrears over the next few months due to a loss of income. These households may face eviction 6 months down the line due to this debt, when emergency measures are lifted.
In order to stop mass evictions taking place at the end of the pandemic the UK Government needs to make more changes to the social security system. By increasing the amount of financial support offered through housing benefit more people will be able to afford their rents during this emergency.
The UK government has already taken some steps in the right direction. Local Housing Allowance (or LHA) – the housing benefit that private renters can claim to help pay their rent, has been raised to cover the lowest 30% of rents in a local area. Alongside this the standard rate of universal credit and tax credits has been increased by £20 a week. However, these changes are not enough and more needs to be done.
Calling for an increase Local Housing Allowance to cover the average rent
Although LHA has been raised to cover 30% of rents in an area, this means that only 3 in 10 rented homes will be affordable to people relying on this benefit to pay their rent. The majority of homes – 7 in 10, will still be unaffordable to people relying on LHA.
Many of the people now turning to the social security system for help to pay their rent are living in homes, that under normal circumstances, they can afford to rent comfortably. These people are likely to be homes that are above the cheapest 30% of rents in their area.
The social security system should always provide a safety net for anyone who needs it and in these unprecedented times, we are urgently calling for LHA to be raised, so it covers the average rent in each area. This will ensure that more people affected by this pandemic can continue to pay their rent and know they can stay in their homes, as they will not be building up debt.
Calling for the benefit cap to be lifted
The benefit cap sets a limit on the amount of welfare payments a claimant can receive. When a household meets the benefit cap threshold, money is taken from their housing benefit, or housing costs element if they are on Universal Credit. Benefits are currently capped at £20,000 a year (£13,400 for single adults with no children) and 3,320 Scottish households were benefit capped as of May 2019.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, many households were already struggling to make ends meet because of the benefit cap. Among Housing Benefit-capped families, the average amount capped each week was £64, equivalent to around £3,320 per year. The benefit cap has caused severe hardship for families in Scotland, as well as stress and anxiety over the financial strain, and has pushed many into arrears, eviction and homelessness.
During the pandemic, the benefit cap will stop the additional social security support we are asking for from reaching those in the most financial need. We are therefore calling on the UK Government to lift the benefit cap. This would mean that all of those who are struggling as a result of this pandemic are able to benefit from measures such as raising the LHA and increasing the standard rate of Universal Credit.
More information on our social security asks can be found here.