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Voices Of Scotland A hardship loan fund won’t avert disaster for Scotland’s renters

Without rent controls we are on course for a wave of evictions and widespread financial hardship, write MARIA TORRES-QUEVEDO and RUFUS BOUVERIE

WHEN the full implications of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent in March of this year, many of us feared that, once again, the poorest and most vulnerable would shoulder the burden of an international crisis. 

From putting their lives at risk as essential workers, to facing financial collapse, working-class people are set to absorb the impact of economic disaster for the second time in a generation. 

The burden on tenants has been clear internationally, with tenants’ unions calling for rent strikes from New York to Bobigny, and Scotland has been no exception. 

Many of us live pay cheque to pay cheque, and have been unable to pay rent due to mass job losses and furloughing as a result of lockdown. 

Tenants’ union membership is up and the Scottish government has acknowledged the need for measures to protect renters. 

Last week, it proposed the creation of a £10 million tenant hardship loan fund and a six-month extension of protections against eviction. 

Yet this measure is piecemeal, a plaster over the gaping wound that is our housing crisis. 

To avoid mass evictions, heightened health and safety risks, and an exacerbated depression, Scotland must implement rent controls and ban evictions until the end of the pandemic.

While the proposed hardship loan fund appears to be a step in the right direction, tenants will see little benefit from this proposal. 

The loan will funnel public money to landlords, many of whom will raise their rents, knowing that this fund will enable tenants to meet higher monthly payments. 

Rather than providing the housing accessibility and security that rent controls would provide, the loan will lead to the taxpayer continuing to prop up landlords’ investments. 

Investments usually entail risk and vary in their returns, yet landlords can place that risk onto their tenants and taxpayers while reaping all of the profits. 

This loan is inherently exclusionary, applying only to “tenants unable to access other forms of support” and those who can prove their financial hardship is the result of the pandemic. 

Tenants will have to jump through hoops to access funds. But it is of little service even to those eligible for it. 

On top of doing nothing to mitigate the debt that many tenants have already built up over the pandemic, a loan will create more debt to be paid later. 

Recipients will have to repay this amid the worst economic crisis on record, with rising rents and stagnant wages that were already stretched thin. 

Without rent controls we are on course for a wave of evictions and widespread financial hardship. 

This mass eviction will add to the 11,665 people already in temporary accommodation and the 31,333 households experiencing homelessness. 

The temporary “ban” on evictions does not apply to cases where the landlord applied to evict before April 7, and Housing Minister Kevin Stewart admitted that private-sector tenants can still be evicted this winter, despite assurances from him and the First Minister. 

The housing crisis and the public health crisis are inextricable; to be able to keep safe distances and good hygiene, people in Scotland need access to safe and affordable housing. 

To achieve this, the government must waive the debt that tenants have accrued in rent arrears and ban all evictions, especially for those in receipt of the hardship fund loan. 

Postponing evictions to March is not enough; we need a guarantee that no-one will be removed from their homes this winter amid the upcoming financial crisis, the cold, and the ongoing pandemic. 

For these reasons, we desperately need full and total rent controls in Scotland. The pandemic is acting as a stress test, revealing pre-existing fractures. 

This housing crisis is happening because rents were already too high when coronavirus hit. 

In Edinburgh alone, rents have increased over 40 per cent in the last eight years, while wages have decreased in real terms, with the average rent coming to more than a third of the average salary. 

In January, Shelter Scotland noted that almost a third of people were worried about being able to pay for the cost of housing over the year, and we have seen this concern grow among our members. 

Rent controls would enable people to stay in their homes and make it easier for others to find homes.

They would improve public health and restore the country’s economic health faster and more equitably, ensuring support where it is needed most. 

With rent controls in place, working people could get back on their feet. They would pave the way for a fairer, more humane and safer Scotland. 

The government’s response to the rental crisis has already been too slow. While it quickly facilitated mortgage holidays and emergency funds for landlords, it has neglected to protect tenants in any meaningful way during Covid-19. 

It refused to hear Pauline McNeill MSP’s Rent Controls Bill, and it voted down Andy Wightman’s proposals for a rent freeze and anti-eviction measures. 

There is still time to mitigate the disproportionate impact the pandemic will have on working people — but the government must act now.  

Maria Torres-Quevedo and Rufus Bouverie are activists with tenants’ union Living Rent (livingrent.org).

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