Stormont's Response to Covid-19 and the Need to Make Social Protections Permanent

As we begin slowly to emerge from the lockdown phase, concerns about those at risk of being left behind are becoming more acute Paige Jennings  |  Tue May 26 2020
Housing campaigners protest chronic homelessness pre-Covid-19

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic unprecedented policy and programme changes have been implemented across the UK and Northern Ireland to allow people to “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Protect the NHS”. If these changes – broadly outlined below – were to be placed on a permanent footing, as opposed to emergency responses, they would constitute a commendable leap forward in meeting the UK’s obligation under international law to ‘progressively realise’ the right to adequate housing.

As the SOS section of this website demonstrates however, people across our society – in particular the most vulnerable – have fallen through the safety net which these measures are intended to provide.

The Covid-19 emergency initiatives were undertaken in a context of long-standing regressive policies – reductions in public housing stock, failure to build sufficient numbers of new and additional social housing, poorly regulated private sector - frustrating the right to adequate housing, particularly amongst the disadvantaged communities that are now suffering disproportionately from Covid-19. As we begin slowly to emerge from the lockdown phase, concerns about those at risk of being left behind are becoming more acute.

The final section below highlights some proposals for moving forward.

UK emergency measures

Private owners: mortgage relief

On St Patrick’s day, with the threat of Covid-19 already disrupting livelihoods and incomes, the UK Chancellor announced a UK-wide agreement for a three-month payment ‘holiday’ for homeowners unable to meet their mortgages. The next day these were expanded to be inclusive of private landlords’ buy-to-let mortgages on rental properties. These measures were subsequently extended to the end of September and October respectively.

Under the Coronavirus Act 2020 of 25th March, the UK government’s ‘ban on evictions’ of renters ultimately took a more limited form of imposing conditions on landlords, such as providing tenants with a three month notice period prior to the initiation of eviction proceedings in England and Wales. These measures are in place until 30 September.

Northern Ireland Executive emergency measures

Social Housing Tenants: protections from eviction and postponement of rent increases

The first concrete steps taken in terms of emergency housing policy responses from the devolved administration at Stormont was the 27th March Department for Communities' assurance to social housing tenants struggling to make rent payments that the Housing Executive and housing associations would not initiate eviction proceedings against them. A similar guarantee was given to people who had purchased their homes under co-ownership agreements, however no time limit for the policy's expiration was mentioned in the announcement. Later, a planned rent increase of 2.7% for Housing Executive tenants was postponed, from April until October 2020.

It is critical to note that pre-Covid-19, Northern Ireland was experiencing unprecedented and rising housing pressures amongst the most needy: according to the Housing Executive by the end 2019, 71% of the over 38,000 households on the social housing waiting list were in housing stress, and over half – more than 20,500 households -- had Full Duty Applicant homeless status. What this means for many people is precarious sofa surfing arrangements; overcrowding alongside family members in their homes; and long-term hostel living, including shared living spaces with strangers. All of these exacerbate the physical and mental health risks associated with Covid-19.

Housing the Homeless

On 28th March, under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 all tourist and holiday accommodation businesses were closed unless they were providing services to rough sleepers and other homeless. The Housing Executive, charities and volunteers - working under “emergency measures, including the sourcing of additional temporary accommodation” – demonstrated that, with adequate resources available, it was possible to urgently find accommodation for people who had been or were at risk of sleeping rough.

It remains unclear how many... [destitute asylum seekers and others with 'no recourse to public funds'] have been temporarily housed under the Covid-19 efforts. The lack of information about the parameters, extent, and potential end date of this provision of shelter makes the recent progress seem all the more precarious.

However unlike in England, there was no official directive to housing authorities and little or no detail published on the funding, policy and programme changes that made this possible. There was also no public mention of a policy end date. The Department for Communities’ website stated simply that the Housing Executive was “continu[ing] to fulfil its statutory homeless obligations during this period”. This has raised concerns, as the #HomelessNotVoiceless and #Housing4All campaigns have repeatedly drawn attention to the people who regularly fall outside those statutory obligations – individuals who are not judged to meet the Housing Executive’s four criteria for Full Duty Applicant homeless status, and refused asylum seekers and others with No Recourse to Public Funds. It remains unclear how many of these people have been temporarily housed under the Covid-19 efforts. The lack of information about the parameters, extent, and potential end date of this provision of shelter makes the recent progress seem all the more precarious.

Private Renters: extending ‘notice to quit’ eviction period

Protections for the last remaining group – private renters – were included in emergency legislation introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 21st April and passed on the 28th. The Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) (Northern Ireland) Act 2020 stipulated that from 5th May private landlords must provide their tenants 12 weeks’ ‘notice to quit’ period before seeking a court order to evict them. Eviction notice periods up to 5th May remained four weeks for tenancies of under 5 years and 8 weeks for tenancies between 5 and 10 years. As written, these provisions run until 30th September 2020.

As noted above, the UK Chancellor had already given private landlords the possibility of a three-month ‘holiday’ from payments against their buy-to-let mortgages in the event that their tenants were unable to make their monthly payments. Nonetheless, here as elsewhere in the UK further protections – enshrined in law – were deemed necessary to prevent private landlords evicting people during the lockdown period. For the 13% of Northern Ireland households who live in private rented accommodation – as opposed to, for instance, the 12% in Housing Executive and 4% in housing association rentals – these measures have provided some temporary security yet ultimately amount to a ‘stay of execution’ for eviction day.

Housing payment income support programmes

Concurrently with the above steps, income support programmes have been modified and expanded in response to people’s growing need for financial support in meeting housing costs. The Department for Communities advised workers with jobs and income impacted by Covid-19 that they could qualify for Universal Credit: the programme’s Minimum Income Floor was temporarily relaxed for the duration of the outbreak, and from April its basic rate was increased by £80/month. People in receipt of Housing Benefit and/or Universal Credit were advised that they could apply for a discretionary housing payment to cover their rent for up to 13 weeks. Local Housing Allowance rates were raised from April, increasing the amount of benefit on offer depending on area and accommodation type.

Suspension of social security interviews

The Universal Credit system is known to be deeply flawed, both in design and implementation (largely by private companies under contract to the relevant state bodies). Due to Covid-19 social-distancing restrictions, face-to-face interviews were scrapped and Universal Credit applications have had to be made online – presupposing dependable internet access, which many do not have. While some penalties and recovery of benefit overpayments and loans have been suspended during this period, they have not been waived altogether. The five-week wait for the initial payment – while almost universally met by the Department for Communities – causes suffering to many households that do not have any cushion left to cover such a sustained income-gap period.

Going forward

While a Westminster Commons Select Committee inquiry into the impact and effectiveness of measures around homelessness and prevention of evictions during the Covid-19 crisis is currently underway, key figures including housing authorities with direct powers have already made a number of progressive recommendations for housing policy in the post-lockdown period:

  • increasing Local Housing Allowance rates to 50% of market rents (Chartered Institute of Housing, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Shelter UK, among others).
  • lifting the cap on housing allowance, scrapping no-fault evictions and mechanisms to protect tenants who have fallen into rent arrears due to the crisis from eviction (Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s proposed ‘triple lock’ on evictions
  • removing the ‘no recourse to public funds’ designation from refused asylum seekers and others so that they can continue to self isolate, in recognition of their particularly vulnerable status (House of Commons briefing paper; Local Government Association (England), Welsh Local Government Association and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA))
  • scaling up existing Housing First programmes (Scottish authorities are in the process of doing this with their year-old Housing First Pathfinder programme, in order to prevent rough sleepers housed under the emergency Covid-19 measures there from having to return to the streets. The Housing Executive’s Housing First pilot scheme currently runs in both Belfast and Derry/Londonderry)

Paige Jennings is a policy officer for PPR. She has worked in human rights and development roles in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, for a range of local, international and United Nations organisations. She has been an Amnesty International researcher and has written for Minority Rights Group, Child Soldiers International, UNDP and UNHCR.