David Bookbinder: Eviction protections hit the wrong target in social housing, and its tenants who’ll pay the cost

A blanket ban on evictions makes no provision for anti-social tenants and those who choose not to pay their rent, says David Bookbinder.

David Bookbinder: Eviction protections hit the wrong target in social housing, and its tenants who’ll pay the cost

David Bookbinder

Extending the timescale for giving longer notice periods in arrears and anti-social behaviour cases is a kick in the stomach for the vast majority of tenants who try to pay their rent and respect others.

Last week’s indication from the First Minister that the Scottish Government does indeed plan to make longer notice periods apply until the end of March 2021 was hardly a surprise, given the strength of the lobby from politicians, homelessness bodies and others.

When a lobby becomes a populist bandwagon, the facts just get lost. And in the case of housing associations and councils, the resulting huge bill will just fall to tenants to pay.

It’s exasperating that the heavyweight campaigning on this issue makes no distinction between the social rented sector and private rented sector. That effectively assumes there’s no difference in how the respective sectors deal with problematic cases. Yet as a matter of both law and good practice, social landlords simply aren’t in the habit of trying to evict people who are engaging with them and trying to address things.

The reality is that when it suits to treat the two sectors as one, that’s what happens, despite the fact that the legislative and regulatory framework for social landlords is, rightly, infinitely more demanding than what private landlords have to comply with. Careless talk about equalising standards across the two sectors is as singularly unhelpful as it is a fantasy.

As we’ve said previously, the worst arrears cases our members are facing are from those tenants who had seriously high arrears before COVID, and those who say they’re choosing not to pay rent during COVID because nothing can be done about it. I completely understand the sincere desire to protect people who are genuine victims of the impact of COVID, but extending this particular legislation in the social sector is protecting a different group altogether.

The entire lobby on this is based on the premise that no tenant should be penalised for COVID-related arrears. It’s easy to say that, but what does it mean? There’s a big difference between someone whose income has been decimated but is working with their social landlord to make appropriate claims and mitigate the damage, and someone using COVID as a convenient excuse for a rent holiday.

And on anti-social behaviour, not one of the politicians or other signatories to the lobby on this issue would put up with living next door to someone who has spent endless months causing extreme misery to neighbours. Yet they’re happy to sign up to further extending the period in which threatening and intimidating behaviour can continue with impunity.

And now, albeit with good intention, Andy Wightman MSP is calling for no winter evictions, but he thinks it’s OK for tenants to cause despair for neighbours all year round?

Another lesson we’ve learned is that housing minister Kevin Stewart isn’t going anywhere near consulting tenants on this legislation. You won’t find a single group of council or housing association tenants anywhere in Scotland that thinks it’s OK for willful non-payment of rent or serious anti-social behaviour to go without sanction for a year or more.

It’s been suggested that a solution is for the Scottish Government to set up a tenant hardship fund. All potential options are worth looking at, but such a fund wouldn’t address the many cases where non-payment isn’t a result of hardship at all, and where arrears are often well on their way to a five-figure sum with the social landlord powerless to act. A hardship fund also raises the question of how such extra income would be treated by the benefits system.

I’ve no doubt that the same politicians and campaign bodies will be calling for a rent freeze next April (the aforementioned MSP is doing that already). It’s kind of perplexing that the irony of this is so utterly lost on them.

  • David Bookbinder is director at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations (GWSF)
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