“Cancel the rent,” over 4,000 Labour members tell Starmer in backlash over new policy

Sienna Rodgers

Over 4,000 Labour members have signed an open letter calling on Keir Starmer to “cancel the rent” in a backlash against the party’s policy on coronavirus rent deferrals.

Within 48 hours of Labour announcing its stance on Covid-19-caused rent arrears, thousands have joined the campaign promoted by Labour left network Momentum and ‘soft left’ group Open Labour.

The letter accuses the Labour Party of “failing renters”, says its “solutions simply are not good enough”, and concludes: “It’s time for the people’s bailout. Cancel the rent.”

Backbench Labour MPs Clive Lewis and Zarah Sultana have also criticised the position unveiled by new Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire over the weekend.

Activists on the left have pointed out that the Green Party took the opportunity to outflank Labour, with Caroline Lucas tweeting that the policy would “increase homelessness” and Sian Berry saying we should “forgive all arrears”.

To “protect people from bankruptcy and homelessness due to rent arrears”, on Saturday morning Labour proposed emergency legislation, and set out the following five-point plan:

  1. Extend the temporary ban on evictions for six months or however long is needed to implement the legal changes below.
  2. Give residential tenants the same protections as commercial tenants, by protecting them from being made bankrupt by their landlords for non-payment of rent.
  3. Bring forward the government’s proposal to scrap Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions and outlaw evictions on the grounds of rent arrears if the arrears were accrued because of hardship caused by the coronavirus crisis.
  4. Once evictions are prevented, grant renters at least two years to pay back any arrears accrued during this period.
  5. Speed up and improve the provision of Universal Credit, as Labour recently called for, and consider a temporary increase to the Local Housing Allowance to help prevent risk of homelessness.

The fourth point sparked controversy internally, as it was argued by activists that most private renters have no savings and would struggle to pay back coronavirus-related arrears during a widely expected global recession.

In an email to members, Momentum said: “Over a third of private renters live in poverty and two thirds have no savings. Even before coronavirus, almost half working renters were one pay cheque away from losing their home.

“Now millions of renters are at high risk of losing their jobs. Yet Labour’s new policy would see renters shoulder the cost of the crisis.

“It would require renters to pay back all rent missed during the crisis over a two year period – the equivalent of a 12% rent rise amidst the worst recession for three hundred years.

“Renters deserve better than this. Sign this open letter calling on Labour to back a policy of rent cancellation, not deferral.”

Explaining the policy amid criticism on social media, Debbonaire tweeted: “For many this will be a small arrears and they will be back in work soon. For others it will be harder – hence asking govt to consider LHA increase”.

She also pointed followers towards a thread by ‘Nearly Legal’, who was consulted on the policy, which sets out why Labour has rejected the idea of coronavirus rent waivers.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour initially advocated rent deferrals in a letter to the Prime Minister on March 14th. But Corbyn shortly afterwards called for a suspension, and John McDonnell said the “government should cover rent”.

Below is the full text of the open letter on cancelling rent payments.

Across the United Kingdom, in every single one of your constituencies, there are private renters.

These private renters are key workers. They are workers for the NHS, for supermarkets, across all essential services. They are the workers that you wish to centre your post-pandemic economy around protecting.

They are economically precarious. Many face destitution, only shortly delayed by government initiatives, due to a loss of work, due to a reduction in work, and due in some cases to being furloughed, with a 20% pay drop.

The government strategies are either failing in the immediate term or are setting up failure further down the road. Deferrals do not confront the loss of income experienced by private renters, nor do delaying the eviction process. Universal credit is too slow moving and not even nearly enough to keep landlords from demanding rent.

Unfortunately private renters cannot with much confidence look to the Labour Party for comfort. While reforms to Universal Credit are welcomed, the Labour Party’s revised position of rent deferrals does not help us as workers. It simply pushes the problem down the road.

If a worker misses out on three months worth of income, and has to pay that back over 2 years, that is a 12% increase of rent that must be paid, in the worst recession in centuries. Your solutions simply are not good enough. You are failing renters.

We call on the Labour Party to pressure the government to:

  1. Cancel, at the tenant’s request, payments of rent, for any tenant experiencing any drop in income.
  2. Cover, at the tenant’s request, utility payments, for any tenant experiencing any drop in income.
  3. Halt all eviction processes due to failure to produce rent until employment stabilises.

There are already plans initiated in America to do this. Consider the model proposed by Democratic Party representative Ilhan Omar.

There are no excuses. The government has bailed out hundreds of companies. The government has bailed out banks. It’s time for the people’s bailout. Cancel the rent.

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