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Editorial: Suspending rents is the right thing to do during the crisis

TENANTS’ unions are fighting to get rent payments waived during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government claims it has already stepped in to help millions of people who rent their homes by banning evictions for three months. But the measures contained in its emergency Coronavirus Bill are a ticking time bomb.

If you’ve lost your income, then the fact that your landlord can’t throw you out of your house for the next three months is hardly a guarantee of security. Tenants will live in fear that they will be kicked out as soon as emergency measures are lifted because of rent arrears.

Millions of working people in Britain are not financially secure. The bankers’ crash of 2007-8 and the decade of “austerity” that followed ushered in the longest wage squeeze this country has seen in 200 years.

Last year most workers were still taking home less in real terms than they did in 2010.

A 2018 study found a quarter of British adults had no savings at all. The prospect of three or six months’ rent arrears for people with few or no savings and whose work was precarious even before the Covid-19 pandemic is terrifying.

That in turn will lead people to make unsafe decisions. As the London Renters Union puts it, “because of the pressure to continue to pay rent, many thousands of people are forced to leave the house to work, increasing the spread of the disease.”

Despite the eagerness of the authorities in some areas to shame individuals, it is clear that want is a bigger threat to maintaining the lockdown than irresponsibility.

A Financial Times article published today reported an altercation between an Italian couple and police deployed to enforce the lockdown: “We don’t have any more money!” a man shouts, before his partner adds: “You should see my kitchen, it’s completely empty.”

The government will argue that its package of emergency measures is enough to prevent people falling into debt.

But there are huge gaps in the coverage. With people living hand to mouth, even an 80 per cent wage guarantee will not be enough to stop them falling behind with the rent or bills — it is, after all, equivalent to a 20 per cent pay cut.

There are long delays before money actually becomes available both for workers and businesses, many of which don’t qualify for loans.

Individual renters do not have the luxury of giant firms such as Burger King, which unilaterally announced that it would stop paying rent during the crisis.

Landlords, the fast-food chain blandly observed, were “understanding.” Small wonder when the wayward tenant is a powerful global corporation.

Labour has called for the government to suspend rent payments “where necessary,” but it should be pushing further, calling for a cohesive response to the crisis that does not simply respond to particular problems when the political pressure is on but helps us to organise socially to meet the challenges of Covid-19.

That would avoid contradictions like that now raised by the food industry, which complains that government wage guarantees will stop it recruiting laid-off workers to deal with rising demand for British produce that is normally harvested and processed by super-exploited foreign seasonal labour — much of which will not be coming this year.

We should try to move beyond a government response based on weathering the crisis in the hope that everything can go “back to normal” afterwards towards a community and labour movement campaign to change Britain for good.

Suspending rental payments would help millions of people in the short term.

It would also be a blow against Britain’s unusually powerful landlords, whose tenants enjoy less security and fewer rights than their counterparts in most other European countries, and give our communities greater leverage to reset landlord-tenant relations on a fairer footing once the crisis is passed.

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