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Pandemic advice trends show need for action on housing

by Aoife Deery, CAS Policy Officer (Social Justice team).

This article was first published in the Herald on 4 August 2021.

How many times have you heard the same line this past year: we all need to stay home in order to stay safe and save lives? As much as many of us are now desperate to be anywhere else, the pandemic has thrown into sharp focus just how important it is to have a safe and secure home.  

New data published today by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) shows that, unsurprisingly, there have been changes to how we live, compared to before the pandemic. Our CABs gave more advice on housing (as a proportion of all our advice) in 2020/21 than in previous years, and the types of housing advice changed too. It seems that the more time we spend in our homes, problems that we perhaps used to put to one side are no longer ignorable. For people affected by job losses, furlough or reduced hours, new housing challenges arose too. 

Advice about environmental and neighbour issues saw one of the biggest changes this year, peaking in the first quarter of 2020/21 at 12.8% of all housing advice - an increase of more than 5 percentage points compared to the same time the year before. I couldn’t help smiling a little when I saw this, feeling less alone in my annoyance with my own neighbours, who have frequently held what can only be described as dance aerobics classes to questionable music in the afternoons. Of course, this is only a mild irritation compared to some of the severe cases our CAB advisers see, including very serious antisocial behaviour. Coupled with the increase in advice given about complaints, councils and other landlords may want to consider more options for mediating such disputes to ensure everyone can live peacefully in their homes. 

Tradespeople were discouraged and sometimes banned from entering people’s homes over the pandemic. This was reflected with a growth in repairs and maintenance queries both in the private and council rented sector. I’ve read cases where tenants felt their health was at risk from landlords insisting on entry for non-urgent maintenance, but also cases where tenants felt the pandemic was used as an excuse to delay repairs that were truly urgent: one CAB highlighted a case of a client waiting twelve months for an essential boiler repair. No doubt good landlords will have been frustrated as well, trying to organise repairs during restrictions, and juggling this with increasingly dissatisfied tenants. 

The Scottish Government’s aim throughout the pandemic was keeping people safely at home, avoiding evictions and finding accommodation for those who had none. On the face of our data, this could be said to have been successful: indicators of people moving, such as queries about tenancy termination and deposits, were down this year, and demand for advice on threatened homelessness was also down.  

However, if we delve deeper, a more negative picture emerges. Advice on actual homelessness rose in 2020/21, and advice on local authority homeless services overtook threatened homelessness as the most common homelessness advice code. This statistic raises the question of whether people who needed assistance were able to access it.  

Although trying to keep people safely at home was the right thing to do to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, we know that people have also had to bear overcrowded and poor housing conditions. One CAB in the East of Scotland reported of a client who was strongly dissuaded by their local council from making a homeless application despite a rat infestation and extreme damp in her accommodation. The client felt she had no option but to stay on a friend’s sofa until she could find somewhere else to stay. 

One of the biggest areas of concern for CAS as we emerge from the pandemic is whether people are managing to pay their rent, knowing how the past year has affected employment. Encouragingly, advice on rent arrears for council tenants has seen a considerable decrease as a proportion of all arrears advice, perhaps reflecting work by councils to link their tenants with money advice and ensuring they are accessing all they are entitled to.  

On the other hand, this decrease in local authority arrears is counter-balanced by a substantial increase in demand for advice on rent arrears in the private rented sector. This trend reflects concerns from many organisations about the pandemic’s impact on private renters. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, found that private renters are less likely to have savings, and more likely to likely to have been furloughed or lost their jobs compared to those who have mortgages. 

Rent arrears will be a huge weight on such people’s shoulders, especially as the end of furlough approaches. That’s why CAS has been working closely with the Scottish Government and others to avoid a wave of evictions in a few months’ time. We therefore welcomed the Government’s announcement of a new £10 million grant fund to help renters who have accrued arrears because of the pandemic.  

Looking ahead, we want to see strengthened rights for tenants, keeping some of the changes introduced during the pandemic. The upcoming Rented Sector Strategy will be an opportunity to make the case for this, as well as making the sector fairer and more affordable. Scotland has some of the best homelessness legislation in the world, and it’s time to do the same for the private rented sector. 

This pandemic has been devastating in so many ways, but it has also shown that bold policy decisions can have a positive impact and can genuinely transform people’s lives. We need to see that spirit of bold thinking continue as we come out of the pandemic, to fix Scotland’s housing system for good.