Millions of tenants may be unable to pay as coronavirus leads to lost work, say charities.
Housing associations are under pressure to offer rent holidays after only one pledged not to evict any tenant in arrears due to self-isolating because of the coronavirus.
Millions of people live in 2.4m homes let by housing associations across England, Scotland and Wales. Rents are expected to rise by 2.7% from next month and there are fears many people will be unable to pay after losing work or due to being in self-isolation.
The Labour party has urged the government to ban the eviction of tenants whose income has been hit by the outbreak and to allow rent deferrals. On Tuesday, the government said homeowners in financial difficulty due to coronavirus would be offered a three-month mortgage holiday.
However, those who live in housing association accommodation are more likely to work in the gig economy or have precarious contracts, with some out of work because of the impact of the pandemic.
Research by the homeless charity Crisis suggests there were around 15,500 homes repossessed by social landlords (which includes housing associations) in England in 2018, the lowest level since 2000, after a gradual exclusion of the poorest tenants from newly available properties.
The Guardian contacted scores of housing associations – some of which describe themselves as companies “with a heart” – but only one confirmed it would introduce measures to prevent the evictions of those who could not pay their bills because of Covid-19.
“We will stay in regular contact and not initiate any action for rent arrears while they are experiencing difficulties as a result of the virus,” said Sarah Sargent from Radian Group, which has 80,000 tenants across south and south-west England.
“Our goal is always for our customers to maintain their tenancies and our tenancy sustainment team already provide support to customers.”
Other large housing associations said they relied on rental income but were monitoring the situation closely amid business continuity planning, while others said they rarely evicted people.
A source with knowledge of discussions between housing associations regarding the scheduled rent increase said events were developing quickly and there was a concern people would not be able to pay rents at all. In 2017, the UK’s housing associations made record operating profits of £3.5bn.
Crisis called on the government to ensure renters were not put at greater risk of eviction and homelessness.
“Crisis is calling for a temporary suspension of evictions of both social and private tenants,” said Matt Downie the charity’s policy director. “We are already seeing other countries implement such measures and urge the UK to take similar action as a matter of urgency.
“We would expect all social landlords to adopt the practice of the best, and ensure tenants who experience loss of earnings because of the pandemic are supported so that they are not at risk of homelessness.”
The G15 housing associations, which are responsible for about 600,000 homes in London, welcomed the extension of statutory sick pay – £94 a week – to include people advised to self-isolate because of Covid-19 and urged those ineligible to claim universal credit or employment support allowance.
“We are continuing our rent collection processes as normal, which include significant support for tenants experiencing hardship for whatever reason,” a spokesperson said. “G15 housing associations only use evictions in the absolute last resort.”
Chyrel Brown, the chief operating officer at One Housing, said: “We will continue to collect rents as we rely on this income to deliver essential services. We always offer advice and support to residents who find it difficult to pay their rent and will continue to offer this vital support.”
Simon Nunn, an executive director at the National Housing Federation, said: “Housing associations will do everything they can to support their residents at this challenging time. As charitable organisations [housing associations] are set up to support vulnerable residents and this includes helping those who may struggle financially by providing advice, help with budgeting and access to benefits.
“We would encourage any social housing tenant who is concerned about debt to reach out to their housing association. Many are working to put additional measures in place to support residents that may fall into rent arrears to get back on their feet.”