Evidence is emerging that Scottish Government action to lengthen notice periods in arrears cases leads to a significant number of tenants believing they do not need to pay rent during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations.
In many cases, GWSF reports, tenants deciding not to pay rent were already in significant arrears before COVID-19 hit.
The Forum has been gathering case study examples from member associations, ahead of an expected move by housing minister Kevin Stewart to extend the period in which six months’ notice must be given where social landlords issue a recovery notice for rent arrears.
Emergency legislation in April set out that until 30 September 2020, any notice served by a social landlord must be subject to a six-month notice period for arrears cases and three months for anti-social behaviour cases.
The minister is expected to extend this requirement for a further six months to the end of March 2021, following his in-principle acceptance of all the recommendations of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group earlier this month.
GWSF has said it recognises the widely shared desire for evictions from social housing to be avoided, but that prohibiting recovery action has the unintended consequence of protecting tenants who don’t engage with their landlord, feel they don’t need to pay rent and know they can’t be sanctioned by their landlord. GWSF has also said it removes a key sanction in dealing with serious anti social behaviour.
The Forum gave just one of the many examples members have provided:
- Tenant had not paid any rent since December 2019.
- Housing officer managed to make contact initially and established that tenant worked full time. Promises were made to make payments, but engagement dropped off and further attempts to contact the tenant were fruitless.
- Arrears procedure followed and a Notice was due to be issued at the end of March. During lockdown, no contact was established despite the many attempts made.
- Additional letters were issued and arrears procedure effectively restarted. As at July, now back at issuing Notice. Arrears balance is £3,340. Monthly rent is £340. If this doesn’t reach court until Spring 2021 the balance will be well in excess of £6,000 if no payments are made.
The Forum has also said that in some cases arrears are expected to reach £10,000 before any resolution.
GWSF has further argued that even if the requirement for longer notice periods for arrears cases is indeed extended, there should be no similar extension for cases of serious anti social behaviour, as this will simply add months to the misery of neighbours living day to day with fear, threats and intimidation.
Helen Moore, GWSF chair, commented: “Regardless of COVID-19, our members have consistently told us that they would never seek to evict someone who’s engaging with them and who is open and up front about the difficulties they’re having paying their rent. Some of these tenants may never be able to pay all their arrears, but if someone’s doing all they can to mitigate the damage, the last thing an association wants to do is take eviction action.
“There has been a lot of talk about not penalising tenants for ‘COVID-related arrears’, and our members are completely supportive of that approach. But many of the case studies we have involve working tenants who have continued to be paid during COVID but who have told their association that they’re not paying rent ‘because they don’t have to’.
“In many cases we know that arrears will exceed £8,000 by the time cases reach the courts some time next year, and in some instances we’ll almost certainly see arrears of more than £10,000. The pursuit of a ‘no evictions’ approach just gives a signal to those bent on exploiting the system at the cost of their fellow tenants.
“One of HARSAG’s recommendations was for people in arrears to get independent financial advice before any recovery action could be progressed. This shows little understanding of the realities of these cases: someone who isn’t engaging and ignores all efforts to contact them is hardly likely to take up the offer of financial advice.
“There is no justification for extending these powers, and no evidence that housing associations raise notices without following all the correct procedures. The statutory pre-action requirements are robust and were designed to ensure that every possible step has been taken to avoid the eviction action none of us want to see.”
GWSF has written to the minister raising the issue.