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Sheffield tenants facing eviction from their homes over as little as £292

Analysis of rent possessions by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with local partners including Now Then, reveals how tenants are being failed during the pandemic, with 71% of rent possession cases in Sheffield resulting in eviction.

Tbij evictions lead wip3
Alice Mollon/TBIJ

In March 2020, then Secretary State of Housing Robert Jenrick said that no one should lose their home as a result of the pandemic.

But analysis of recent rent possessions - carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism with support from Now Then and other publishers across England and Wales - suggests that this is exactly what happened as the national ban on evictions due to coronavirus was halted.

71% of rent possession cases observed by Now Then in Sheffield during July and August resulted in a possession order being granted, with tenants forced to leave their homes within between 14 and 56 days.

Shockingly, one local case saw a tenant evicted from social housing who owed less than £300 to her landlord. Almost two-thirds of tenants had no legal representation in court in Sheffield, while nationally decisions about evictions were made by judges in an average of just ten minutes.

The law

According to the law, if a tenant falls behind on two months’ rent, then a judge has no choice but to grant a possession order under the Housing Act, allowing a landlord to evict their tenant.

The legal process also stipulates that a tenant cannot bring any arguments or individual circumstances - meaning that in most cases, judges cannot bear in mind the effects of the pandemic when making their rulings on rent arrears.

While possession hearings in England and Wales were paused for six months between March and September 2020, this was only a temporary measure. A ban on bailiff evictions was also lifted in May 2021 in England and the following month in Wales.

Citizens Advice estimated in January that around half a million people in the UK could be in rent arrears, with one in four private renters in arrears having already been threatened with eviction or the cancellation of their contract.

The #ClosedDoors project

To find out more about what exactly was going on within our housing system, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism conducted an analysis into possession cases as part of its the #ClosedDoors project.

On-the-ground reporting at more than 550 hearings across 30 courts in England and Wales - supported by Now Then in Sheffield - has revealed that the majority of possession cases (85%) were on ‘mandatory grounds’.

This means that while Covid-19 was mentioned in a third of all hearings, these circumstances could not be used as the basis for discretion in rulings by judges due to the rigid nature of the Housing Act.

Analysis of the 555 possession court hearings revealed that these were decisions which could effectively lead to people becoming homeless and destitute, and that they were made in an average of just ten minutes. In around a third of cases, it took five minutes or less for a judge to grant a possession order.

Many tenants facing eviction also had no legal representation, which meant there was no one to argue their case or advise them on the best course of action. In two-thirds of hearings with both private and social landlords in England and Wales, the tenant had no legal representation.

At a local level, 64% of cases heard in Sheffield County Court included tenants with no legal representation. One judge told Now Then that although there is always a duty solicitor present for people to access free legal advice, this service was not regularly used by tenants.

Judges were advised in October 2020 to prioritise the most extreme cases, but by July this year cases were being heard that involved tenants falling behind on rent by just two months. In around a quarter of national cases, the arrears were £3,000 or less, roughly equivalent to three months of the average rent in the UK.

In Sheffield, one case involved a tenant living in social housing who owed just £292.32 in rent. She was issued with a possession order which meant she would be evicted from her home within two weeks.

In another local case a tenant faced repossession of his home due to arrears on his mortgage. The tenant’s legal representative explained to the court that the increasing debt was due to the tenant’s ex-partner, who is living at the property, being unable to keep up with the payments but also being unwilling to sell the property.

The court heard that the tenant and his ex-partner had recently lost their son and were both suffering with mental health issues. The most the judge could do in this case was grant a possession order long enough - 90 days - for the tenant to try to sell the property to pay off the debt.

The rise in rent

While many people are struggling to pay their rent due to the pandemic, they are also having to contend with rising rent bills.

Official figures show that rental prices have increased over the course of the pandemic, in the 12 months leading up to July 2021.

Demand for private rented housing has also reached a five-year high following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, according to a recent survey by the National Residential Landlords Association. People who do end up having to leave their homes due to eviction therefore find themselves in a position where there are fewer homes available to them.

What now?

With the furlough scheme wrapping up at the end of this month and an impending cut to Universal Credit, many more people continue to face the possibility of eviction.

Responding to the findings of the collaborative #ClosedDoors investigation, a government spokesperson told the Bureau:

Our £352 billion support package has helped renters throughout the pandemic and prevented a build-up of rent arrears. We also took unprecedented action to help keep people in their homes by extending notice periods and pausing evictions at the height of the pandemic.

As the economy reopens, it is right that these measures are now being lifted and we are delivering a fairer and more effective private rental sector that works for both landlords and tenants.

But the findings of #ClosedDoors suggest that, if anything, tenants are in a worse position than they were before the pandemic.

Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee, said:

It is saddening to read the results of this research, which show that huge numbers of renting households, including families, have been pushed out of their homes since the lifting of the evictions ban.

Of the government’s support package, Jamie Sims, Communications Officer at the Sheffield branch of community union ACORN, told Now Then:

The economic fallout of Covid-19 hit working people in our city hard. Many workers lost their jobs or lost part of their income through being furloughed, which made existing inequalities worse. This impacted people's ability to pay the rent. Some of our members in Sheffield even faced rent increases during the first lockdown which they could not afford.

Other living costs also rose, with residents at the historic Park Hill flats facing hikes in their heating bills and service fees - later dropped after a successful ACORN campaign. Many people in Sheffield live in low quality and overcrowded private rental housing, which became even more disastrous as people were forced to stay home.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, said:

With only days until the Covid protections of furlough and the Universal Credit uplift are removed, more renters will be in danger of losing their homes in the months ahead. So it’s vital that renters get financial help to clear Covid arrears.

Alongside this, the government must boost legal aid funding to cover debt and benefit problems – so renters can get crucial early advice to stop a small problem becoming a crisis that puts their home at risk.

And though notice periods return to normal next week, things cannot return to ‘business as usual’. To provide genuine security for those living in privately rented homes, the government must deliver on its promise to scrap Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions through the Renters’ Reform Bill.

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