Last updated 10 November 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already led to job losses and reduced incomes for many, making it hard for some tenants to pay their rent. The Scottish and UK Governments have taken measures to support Scottish tenants and landlords during the pandemic. This blog summarises these measures.
Protection from eviction
The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 (‘the 2020 Act’) aims to protect tenants living in social and private renting from eviction by:
- Extending notice periods. All landlords need to give their tenants notice to end their tenancy (for example, if tenants don’t pay their rent). How much notice is required depends on the type of tenancy and the reason (‘the ground’) the landlord wants to end the tenancy. The 2020 Act temporarily extends most notice periods up to six months.
- Making all grounds for eviction in the private rented sector discretionary. If a tenant has not moved out at the end of the notice period, the landlord will need to get an eviction order from the First-Tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber). Previously, some eviction grounds were mandatory, i.e. the Tribunal had to grant an eviction order if the grounds were met. Now, the Tribunal can use its discretion in all eviction cases and decide if it’s reasonable for an eviction to take place. This will allow the Tribunal to consider all the circumstances of the case.
While the 2020 Act does not prevent landlords from starting the process for ending a tenancy, the longer notice period means that, in practice, many tenants are currently protected from actual eviction.
These measures apply to notices served during the period the 2020 Act is in force, which is currently 7 April to 31 March 2021. It is important to note that some evictions can still take place during this period, including evictions of tenants that were served notices prior to 7 April when the 2020 Act came into force.
In addition, the 2020 Act doesn’t change the fact that tenants still need to pay their rent. What it does is give tenants time to apply for, and receive, any support they might be entitled to (see below), to help pay their rent in the short term. It also allows tenants the time to plan for the longer term, if necessary.
The 2020 Act also doesn’t include anything on rent arrears. If a tenant has not been able to pay all their rent during the period when the Act is in force, landlords could still pursue the tenant for payment of rent arrears.
In September 2020, the Scottish Parliament passed regulations making the following changes:
- The notice period for eviction cases involving antisocial and criminal behaviour will revert back to 28 days’ notice. This follows concerns raised by both social and private landlords about the impact this behaviour is having on the safety and wellbeing of neighbours and wider communities. This applies from 3 October 2020.
- Landlords in the private rented sector will have to comply with pre-action requirements if they want to evict a tenant for rent arrears, where all or part of the arrears accrued on, or after, 27 May 2020. These requirements apply to where the landlord serves a notice to end a tenancy on, or after 7 April 2020 and an application is made to the Tribunal to repossess a property on the grounds of rent arrears from 6 October 2020.
Pre-action requirements already apply in the social rented sector and mean that landlords must make reasonable efforts to work with tenants to manage arrears. The Tribunal will consider the extent to which these requirements have been followed when it decides whether to make an eviction order. The Scottish Government has published guidance for landlords on pre-action requirements. The requirements include, for example, providing tenants with information about their rights and providing details of free and independent sources of debt help and advice.
These new rules on pre-action requirements will end on 31 March 2021, although the Scottish Government is considering whether to make them permanent.
What support is available to tenants and landlords?
Any tenant who is having trouble paying their rent should speak to their landlord. Tenants should also find out if they are entitled to any social security benefits to help pay their rent.
The Scottish and UK governments have also taken the following measures to help support tenants and landlords, including:
- The Scottish Government increasing the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) budget, by an additional £5m with a further £3m increase announced in the 2020 Programme for Government. DHPs are available to people eligible for housing benefit/housing costs element of Universal Credit to help pay their rent. Councils administer DHPs.
- The Scottish Government announcing a new £10m Tenant Hardship Loan fund in the 2020 Programme for Government. This will focus on tenants unable to access other forms of support for their housing costs. It will provide interest free loans to support those struggling to meet their rent costs due to the pandemic and should be available later in the autumn.
- The UK Government increasing the Local Housing Allowance rate. This is the maximum housing benefit that can be paid to tenants living in private rented housing, although it still only covers the cost of housing at the lower end of the market.
- Landlords with tenants experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic have been able to apply for a mortgage payment holiday. The initial deadline for applying ended on 31 October 2020, although on 2 November the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced further proposals to support mortgage borrowers affected by the pandemic. FCA guidance is expected to be published soon.
- Private landlords unable to take a mortgage holiday may be able to apply to the Scottish Government’s landlord Covid-19 loan support scheme.
The Scottish Government has published a range of guidance for tenants and landlords on its website.
Impact of the pandemic on the rented housing sector
Rent arrears in the social rented sector are rising. The total value of rent arrears at the end of April 2020 was £137m, rising to £163m by the end of September 2020. Some social landlords are concerned that a minority of their tenants have treated this period as a rent holiday. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, for example, has suggested that the Scottish Government needs to be clearer with the message that tenants still need to pay their rent. Social landlords are also concerned about the longer-term impact of increasing arrears on their tenants and their own future investment plans.
The situation in the private rented sector is less clear. As of 23 September 2020, the Tribunal had received four applications that fall within the scope of the emergency provisions. It may be though that it will start to hear cases as notices served earlier in the pandemic come to an end. There is not any consistent data on rent arrears in private rented housing. However, a Scottish Association of Landlords survey revealed that some of its members had experienced financial loss as a result of the pandemic and that arrears were rising. Some landlords are offering discounts to tenants affected by COVID-19.
While the package of measures will undoubtedly help some tenants and landlords during the pandemic, pressures may mount as time goes on. The ending of the job retention scheme could lead to more job losses and further pressures on tenants’ incomes. Financial pressures could also result in some private landlords leaving the market. The longer-term impact of the pandemic on the tenants, landlords and the wider housing market remains to be seen.
Kate Berry, Senior Researcher, Housing