by Nina Ballantyne, CAS Social Justice policy manager.
This article was first published in the Herald on 15 July 2020.
In recent weeks we’ve been setting out how people must be at the centre of the Covid-19 recovery. Adequate housing is a human right and fundamental in preventing and addressing ill health.
Unfortunately, even before the pandemic too many people in Scotland did not have access to safe, warm, affordable housing, and some had no fixed roof over their head at all.
Citizens Advice Bureaux around Scotland regularly supported people struggling with mortgage payments, dealing with their letting agent, getting their housing association to carry out repairs, or navigating the labyrinthine homelessness system.
Housing has always been one of our most common advice areas. It is often part of the wider hardship that comes with trying to budget on a low income, or having your physical and mental health affected by the behaviour of bad neighbours, letting agents or landlords.
But housing charities and advice organisations like ourselves have worked with Scottish and local government, housing associations and private landlords to highlight housing issues and the need to tackle them, with significant progress since 1999.
Right-to-buy and short-term lets squeezed affordable housing supply, so the Scottish Government ended the former and committed to improving regulation for the latter.
Good landlords and letting agents, infuriated by the bad practice of others, have welcomed new regulations in the private rented sector that give tenants more rights, make letting agent fees illegal and improve transparency.
Higher standards in accommodation for homeless people and fewer barriers to support were also due to come into force. The conclusions of the extensive Housing to 2040 consultation, and the recommendations of the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group should have been coming to fruition this year as well.
The emergency response to Covid-19 has understandably paused some of this progress, and our own data shows the devastating impact of redundancies, reduced hours and the shortcomings of Universal Credit. Housing advice has started to increase in the last two months.
Within that, advice on the private rented sector (PRS) increased particularly. Advice on rents has overtaken repairs issues as the most common PRS advice area. But the crisis has also shown that we can and should be more ambitious. Even with variable quality, every rough sleeper in Scotland was given access to accommodation almost overnight at the start of lockdown. Community groups, charities, the public sector and local businesses have worked together to keep huge numbers of people fed and connected.
As restrictions ease for some of us, what kind of Scotland do we want to emerge from lockdown?
What do we want back, and what should we refuse to accept ever again? Good housing helps to keep us safe, healthy and happy.
Bad housing, and bad housing systems, cause poverty and ill health, worsen inequality and prevent Scotland reaching its potential.
Our immediate priority must be to prevent any slip backwards in what has been achieved.
Government, councils, housing association and landlords must collaborate to ensure current temporary accommodation is a gateway to a permanent home, not an endless cycle of moves, sofa-surfing, rough sleeping and disruption.
Anyone who needs help to pay their rent must get it.
Any eviction on the basis of rent arrears is a failure to support someone in need, and for most Universal Credit and Discretionary Housing Payments should prevent this.
New pre-action requirements and guidance for tribunal proceedings will also make it clear that private landlords have a responsibility to help their tenants through this crisis, as we know many are already doing.
And as we look beyond the immediate crisis, CAS is thinking about what we want to see more of in the housing system, and what we want to see less of. More transparency in the private rented sector can only be a good thing. Most tenants (myself included) have a horror story to tell, so increased data on rent levels and housing conditions will show up bad landlords and highlight good landlords.
More truly affordable housing options across all sectors will mean people not having to fork out huge amounts of their income on mortgage payments or rent.
When it comes to debt, we want to see a more preventative approach. Being behind on rent, mortgage payments, council tax or other bills is a sign that you need support, not aggressive harassment for money you don’t have.
Fewer draughty, hard to heat homes will mean fewer people vulnerable to Covid-19 and other respiratory conditions, particularly as we edge closer to winter. There is appetite in government and across a range of private and civil society organisations to make our right to adequate housing a reality; to make the system fairer and reduce inequality. All we need to do is be brave and ambitious when it’s time for decisions to be made.