Opinion: Housing lifeline needs to go far beyond Covid crisis

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by Aoife Deery

Like nearly everyone across Scotland over the last nine months, I have spent an inordinate amount of time inside my flat and have become intimately familiar with its every crevice, noticing things I never had before.

The way the wallpaper crinkles in the top corner of the living room above the window, that mark on the wall next to the TV. Like most people, I really can’t wait for lockdown to end. Despite this and the irritation caused by the strand of dust hanging down from the kitchen ceiling I just can’t reach, I have never been more grateful for the four walls that have housed me safely throughout the pandemic.

Feeling secure in your home makes it that bit easier to get through the pandemic and will also be critical to our recovery. And as we all know, staying at home has been the UK and Scottish governments’ core message since these strange times began. Unfortunately, job losses, decreases in hours or pay, and increased bills mean that some people in Scotland don’t have the luxury of feeling secure in their home.

For now, we’re really pleased that the Scottish Government and others heeded our calls to be brave and ambitious when making tough decisions in order to avoid these groups losing their homes. Extended notice periods for evictions and a ban on enforcing most evictions in levels three and four areas are still in place.

This gives tenants at risk of eviction some breathing space to seek help and support, but also avoids forcing them to find alternative accommodation, an activity where it is difficult to eliminate the risk of picking up or passing on infection.

Thanks to this action, rent arrears accumulated during the pandemic should not result in evictions. However, these protections are due to expire at the end of March. While people can stay at home for now, we know from bureaux data that many are struggling to afford their rent, and building up debt during this time.

The proportion of private rented sector housing advice relating to rents incread by more than 50% over the last nine months compared to the same period in 2019.

Lots of people can access Universal Credit (UC) for help to pay rent, and apply for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) from the council if they’re still struggling with housing costs.

The Scottish Government made the right call when it increased the budget for DHPs in the middle of last year to ensure as many people as possible could access this crucial support.

But bureaux advisers have told us that it’s easier in some places than others to access DHPs, and some people don’t know about the help until they’ve already built up debt.

Then, there are whole groups who can’t access UC or DHPs at all. We are particularly thinking about full-time students, households who are low earners but still earn slightly too much to qualify for UC, or those whose visa conditions do not allow them access to public funds (this group is often referred to as “No Recourse to Public Funds” or “NRPF”).

The new Tenant Hardship Loan Fund was introduced just before Christmas, but we know a loan won’t be suitable for lots of the people already facing debt.

CAS is therefore looking to the upcoming Scottish Budget as a significant opportunity for the Scottish Government to be bold and ambitious once more in ramping up the support offered to tenants.

Specifically, to top up the funding available through Discretionary Housing Payments, to give money to local authorities to help manage and promote DHPs and introduce a grant system to help people who are not eligible for other support.

DHPs and equivalent grants will not only help see tenants through this crisis period to brighter times but getting the rent paid reduces the likelihood of bad landlords harassing tenants for unpaid rent or threatening illegal evictions too.

This is something we’ve also seen an increase in people seeking advice on, unfortunately. It also means that when eviction protections do end, overstretched public services won’t have to manage a wave of people becoming homeless.

We know there is light at the end of the tunnel but while we’re still in the grip of this crisis, the Scottish Budget can help to address short-term need and prevent long-term damage, avoiding extra strain on public services and avoiding the risking of more transmission brought about by evictions. Most importantly, this budget can help protect people from the destitution and hardship that homelessness brings.

As we move forward (hopefully soon) to restrictions easing and eventually ending, there are bigger questions and discussions to be had about what people’s experiences of the pandemic have revealed to us about the affordability of housing and realising the right to adequate housing.

For now though, increasing funding for DHPs and other grant support for tenants will have far reaching effects, not least keeping people safely at home.

Aoife Deery is senior policy officer for Citizens Advice Advance Scotland.

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