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Key Worker? Pay Up! Coronavirus and The Housing Crisis

Shelter is a basic human necessity. Along with food, water and rest it makes up the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Nobody can exist without it and yet, due to the Coronavirus epidemic, we are expecting some to go without. The Government have announced various policies for those experiencing financial hardship. For tenants in the private rental sector HM Government have suspended all current eviction proceedings that have already made it to court. Universal credit and housing benefit are being increased while those affected by job loss may receive 80% of their pay in the furlough scheme and those that aren’t can apply for some of the £500 million hardship fund. The Government also wishes to assist landlords and tenants to agree reasonable repayment plans for those who, despite all the other measures, simply cannot afford to pay. Sadly, these measures like most government provision since the start of this crisis have been piecemeal, delayed and wholly insufficient. 

Come the end of lockdown and the end of the ban, evictions will soar. Those still employed may have been compelled to return to work before it was safe to do so from fear of not being able to afford rent. Those out of work struggle to access the benefits they are entitled to. The chronically incapable Universal Credit scheme has been inundated with 1 million new claims and that was only by April 1st. Leaving those out of work and those in in-work poverty completely defenceless when the landlord comes knocking. 

The Labour opposition propose an almost indistinguishable plan to merely ban evictions, make getting financial help from the Government easier, give tenants more time to pay and stop renters being made bankrupt. No mainstream party realistically appeals to the workers in crisis deciding whether to risk the threat of infection at work or the wrath of their landlord at home. 

But why is opposition to ‘landlordism’ so weak in the political mainstream, especially when it poses such a present threat to working people. Recently, the Tories promised to reward the trust placed in them by voters in the north and replace Labour as the party of the working class who have historically filled that role. Well it may come as no surprise that party politics is riddled with landlords. The House of Commons is crammed full of 123 of them, not even mentioning the house of lords, as of 2017. However, based on the most recent figures from Channel 4 taking the 2019 election gains / losses alongside the percentage of the parties’ MPs that were landlords in 2017 it is reasonable to suppose that there are currently 130 Landlord MPs. While one expects the Tories to be unapologetically rinsing the poor the fact that a quarter of the shadow cabinet can still collect rent in the current climate is despicable. 

The Palace of Westminster, containing the House of Commons

This is also partly why all the measures proposed by these parties to deal with the blow to the rental sector seem predicated on the first principle that the landlord must be paid rather than the tenant must receive adequate and fairly priced accommodation. It appears to be the unwritten consensus amongst politicians that it will be renters who foot the ultimate and sizable bill for this crisis in the housing market. That the crisis is of their own making, buying to let thus reducing supply and consequently pushing up housing prices making it therefore unattainable for most people to apply for even a deposit for their own home. Thanks to 10 years of brutal austerity no new social housing has been built. This generation who have been priced out of the housing market now has no alternative than to fall back on the private rental sector as their only hope of finding accommodation. Rents themselves are skyrocketing and people are finding themselves with no where else to turn. As in all things in these late stages of capitalism in which we find ourselves, the crisis created by the rich will be paid for, perhaps utilising “reasonable repayment plans”, by the poor. 

However, we must not dehumanise this group. They are not simply tenants. These are families trying their best to get by. They are also key workers, those who until ever so recently were vilely labelled unskilled. Being often paid the bare minimum to be exposed to dangers by careless employers whilst landlords could not care less. I need not remind the reader of harrowing stories of individual nurses and other key workers being threatened with eviction due to a landlord deeming their tenant a threat to their health. A lot has been discussed around the sincerities of clapping for key workers. I bring the subject up again to ponder how can such a basic necessity and one of the biggest anxieties for a lot of key workers, be so underrepresented in the discourse around coronavirus. If these men and women* stand at the end of this crisis materially no better off than they were at the start, with nothing but the good will of the public to show, we will have failed them. 

Though I despise to make a war comparison, I shall do so anyway, as the point is a pertinent one. After the first world war Lloyd George promised a nation fit for heroes with housing as a key feature. The post war consensus was, in part, a revolution in housing only to be undermined by Thatcher and completely emaciated since. Boris may well play on these tropes himself come the end of the virus however we cannot rely on any hollow promises unless they address the direct cause of the rot. How can we continue to subject our key workers, those who it has been borne out by the current circumstances, to these injustices? People deserve more than having to pay an average of 30%, rising to 50% and even 75% in some areas of London, of one’s income on rent to receive cramped space and a negligent landlord. Why must it take a crisis to realise that?

This is no unsolvable problem either. People are being bled dry at the pleasure of landlords, a cruel class of individual who, along with the Tories, have fattened themselves on these artificially high rents and now cry foul when nurses and shop assistants turn around and plead, they cannot pay. So, who else but the government, a quarter of whom are themselves landlords, and that’s to not even mention their financial backers, steps in with the consent of Labour to gladly pay the landlords themselves, however they can, but pay they must. We must ban all evictions and nationalise housing for the public good. Beginning as soon as it is safe to do so we must build new social housing on a scale never seen before to increase capacity and give everyone a chance to get onto the housing ladder.

Despite the current eviction ban when the lockdown passes, and these exceptional measures are undone evictions of “problem” tenants during the period will only increase with no legal repercussions as the government has told tenants that the full terms of their tenancy agreements must be kept to. And when landlords demand that nurses, carers or shop workers are evicted from their houses we must know which side we are on. 

By George Sullivan

History and History of Art student Uni of Nottingham // Nottingham Labour Students Co Chair // https://periscopenottingham.wordpress.com

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