Housing and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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This blog looks at the effect of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the housing sector in Scotland and the emergency measures put in place by the Scottish Government.

What happens if I am homeless?

Homeless people are especially vulnerable to catching coronavirus (COVID-19). Infections are likely to be common amongst the homeless population. Scotland has the highest number of homeless deaths in the United Kingdom, with 35.9 homeless deaths per million people recorded in 2018, compared with 16.8 per million people in England.

In England, the government have advised that all rough sleepers should be housed to restrict the spread of the virus. In Scotland, there is no definitive advice about this. However the £350 million fund, to support community and wellbeing, provides money which can be used by charities and organisations working with homeless people. The Scottish Government has provided £300,000 to enable the homeless charity, Simon Community Scotland, to provide hotel accommodation for all rough sleepers in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the pandemic, with “move on plans” for everyone. Move on plans are detailed plans enabling individuals to move on from emergency accommodation to more long term, appropriate housing which may have support provided.

However, hotel accommodation may be unsuitable for homeless people if they share cooking facilities or have no cooking facilities. Additionally, there is little information about what is happening to rough sleepers who do not live in the big cities.

There are also concerns about how this will be funded and achieved, and what support is in place to support local authorities to achieve this. There are also concerns about what happens when the outbreak is over. Will this accommodation still be available for rough sleepers?

In Scotland, around 300 empty homes have been made available for temporary accommodation in Glasgow, Edinburgh, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian.

What should I do as a landlord?

Letting agents will be aided by rates relief to support them during the coronavirus outbreak. Details in the Non-Domestic Rates (Coronavirus Reliefs) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 confirm that there will be 100% rates relief for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors for the whole of 2020-21, and also letting agents.

The Scottish Government directs tenants affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) towards Universal Credit which can include support for housing costs. If a tenant is getting Housing Benefit or Universal Credit, but still can’t afford their housing costs, they may be eligible for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). Rent is still due under the terms of the tenancy agreement and tenants should continue to pay rent if they can. A landlord should make every effort to discuss a situation, where rent may be an issue, with the tenant directly.

With regard to repairs, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations stated in an email to members:

“The current Covid-19 epidemic means that no unnecessary visits to tenants’ homes should be taking place. Unless work is essential for the safety and security of occupiers, or for homes to be fit for human habitation, it should be postponed…. continuing to carry out annual gas safety could pose a major public health risk…

Where tenants have any reason for concern about the condition of any gas or electrical fuelled appliances in their home, they can advise their landlord who can consider if there is a need for an engineer to attend their home to carry out emergency repairs or maintenance.”

Further Scottish Government guidance for private sector landlords and letting agents can be found here.

Can I be evicted during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart MSP, stated in a letter to Registered Social Landlords and Local Authority Directors of Housing on 18 March 2020:

“It is absolutely critical that we work together to ensure no-one is evicted because of any financial hardship suffered as a result of coronavirus.”

The UK government has banned all evictions in England and Wales for a period of at least three months. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill 2020 will increase the minimum notice period for private and social tenants depending on the grounds used, helping to protect them from eviction. The extended notice periods are for six months in most cases, or three months for certain tenant conduct grounds relating to antisocial or criminal behaviour, or circumstances where a landlord or their family member needs to move into the property. No change is made where possession is sought on grounds that the tenant has abandoned the property or where there is suitable alternative accommodation.

The Scottish government has confirmed changes to the rules surrounding the eviction of private renters. Under current Scottish legislation, private landlords can evict a tenant if they are in arrears for at least three months in a row and if at least one month’s rent is unpaid. All private rented sector repossession cases going before the First Tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber) to be considered on a discretionary basis. This ensures the Tribunal can take all circumstances of a case into account when determining whether to grant an eviction order. It allows for the individual financial circumstances of the tenant to be taken into account during this crisis. First-tier housing tribunals will no longer uphold requests for eviction due to rent arrears if the reason for non-payment of rent is a delay in the payment of benefits including housing benefit or Universal Credit.

However, rental income is vital for housing associations and co-operatives as social not-for-profit businesses. It allows them to provide support and services for tenants and to carry out essential repairs and maintenance work.

On 24th March 2020, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell MSP, advised that:

“We have been clear that nobody should lose their house as a result of measures to cope with this pandemic. There should be no evictions as a result of Covid. Our emergency legislation will have provisions to ensure that there can be no evictions from the private rented sector or the social rented sector for six months.

Under the old tenancies—the assured and short assured tenancies—there are 17 grounds for eviction; the new tenancy has 18. We are looking to extend the notice period in relation to the majority of those grounds. We will continue to explore with the member any issues that she wishes to raise in relation to the issue, but I hope that I have been able to give her some certainty that we are taking action in relation to not only arrears but the grounds for notice of eviction. The extension of the notice period for the majority of those grounds to six months is in order to give effect to our desire for no one to lose their house over the actions that are being taken in our attempts to cope with the pandemic.”

The First-tier Tribunal for Scotland has postponed (or adjourned in some cases where the hearing has started) all case management discussions/hearings to at least 28 May 2020. This is a date set to comply with legislation and the actual date when any case will be heard may therefore change.

The majority of measures in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill 2020 will automatically expire six months after they come into force. The Scottish Parliament may extend these measures for two further periods of six months, giving the measures in the bill a maximum duration of 18 months. The Scottish Government will provide a report to Parliament every two months about the use of these emergency powers. It is therefore possible that evictions may not take place for a longer period if the measures remain in place.

Effects of coronavirus (COVID-19) on the housing market

For homeowners in bankruptcy proceedings, sales and evictions have also been halted during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Mortgage providers are encouraged to provide repayment holidays and other concessions for all mortgage holders. The First Minister stated on 26 March 2020:

“We have been very clear that six month mortgage holidays should be available, and that nobody should be facing eviction as a result of this crisis.”

According to an article in Scottish Housing News, one consequence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is that the number of long term rental properties is increasing, as bookings for short term lettings are cancelled. The article suggests that the increase in available property may lead to a fall in property rental prices in the short to medium term. However, it is not yet clear whether this will actually be the case.

Further Advice

Further advice about housing issues and coronavirus (COVID-19) can be found on the website of Shelter Scotland.