Freeze rents and write off arrears, 4 Labour MPs tell Robert Jenrick

Four Labour MPs have joined forces to demand that the UK government helps to prevent a future rent debt and eviction crisis by freezing rents and writing off arrears.

Apsana Begum, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Zarah Sultana and Claudia Webbe – all 2019 intake MPs on the party’s left – made the call in a letter to Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick.

They are urging the government to take action to prevent “mass homelessness” and to protect renters from evictions and increased debt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Commenting on the demands, Begum said: “We need specific measures targeted at renters to ensure nobody is left facing poverty or homelessness as a result of the current crisis.” 

Ribeiro-Addy added: “We can’t leave tenants to rely on the charity and good will of their landlords. We need binding legislation and stronger financial support to make sure people aren’t left facing homelessness or bankruptcy.”

Sultana argued that the crisis had made it even clearer that “Britain’s housing system is broken”, while Webbe stressed that a refusal to extend the evictions ban beyond this month is a “political choice”.

Their requests echo the demands of tenants’ organisations such as ACORN, Generation Rent and the London Renters’ Union, which are name-checked in the letter to Jenrick.

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

Since then, Labour has made clear that it supports rent deferrals, which would require renters to make additional payments to cover any arrears accrued during the crisis.

Some party activists have pushed for rent cancellations that would forgo the need to pay back arrears – several thousand Labour members signed an open letter to Keir Starmer to this effect.

But the party has told the government to improve Universal Credit and increase the Local Housing Allowance instead of writing off debts, which it says would be legally complicated.

Below is the full text of the letter from the Labour MPs to Robert Jenrick.

Dear Robert,

We write to you to express our deep concern over the current lack of support for renters. Research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) found that 1.2 million private renters in the UK are currently falling through the gaps in government’s Covid-19 income support schemes. If the government allows the eviction ban to lapse at the end of June, these same people could find themselves with insurmountable debts, or evicted from their homes.

We note the government’s recent announcement to extend its mortgage relief scheme. It does not make economic sense for the Treasury to provide additional financial support to landlords while refusing comparable support to renters. Policy decisions in recent years have left renters in a precarious position. The average private renter spends over a third of their income on rent. One 2019 Shelter poll found almost half of all working renters were just one pay cheque away from losing their home, whilst two-thirds of renters had no savings whatsoever. Tenants’ organisations such as ACORN the Union, Generation Rent and the London Renters Union have worked tirelessly to raise these issues.

The government must act urgently to prevent mass homelessness. We therefore call on you to consider the following measures to help renters weather this financial storm:

1. Extend the eviction ban and push ahead with the abolition of Section 21 evictions to ensure nobody is left homeless during or after the pandemic.

2. Freeze rents and write off rental arrears accrued during the pandemic for those who cannot afford to pay to prevent a future rent debt and eviction crisis for millions.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar & Limehouse
Zarah Sultana MP for Coventry South
Claudia Webbe, MP for Leicester East
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham

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