By Phil Martin, IMT Edinburgh
MSPs belonging to the Scottish National Party teamed up with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament at the end of May in order to vote against measures designed to protect tenants during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Members of the parliamentary COVID-19 committee were considering amendments to emergency legislation that were put forward by Scottish Labour and the Scottish Green Party.
Labour and Green MSPs put forward plans to create a dedicated fund to support renters who were facing financial hardship, while the Greens also proposed a two year freeze on all rent increases and blocking future evictions being based on rent arrears accumulated during the pandemic.
These measures would have been welcomed by workers who were struggling to make ends meet even before the current crisis. With unemployment now sharply on the rise and the furlough scheme causing many to experience a significant drop in income, the last thing workers want to have to worry about is being kicked out of their home because they cannot afford their rent!
The proposer of the amendments Andy Wightman MSP said: “Housing is a human right, and access to good housing is a public health issue, that’s why it is deeply disappointing to see SNP MSPs once again team up with the Tories to block clear progress on social justice. A rent freeze and a ban on evictions based on arrears accumulated as a result of this crisis would have provided much-needed security for people who are financially most at risk.
“Scottish Ministers made no attempt to contact me to discuss my amendments despite being advised of them a week ago. This stands in contrast to the last piece of emergency legislation, when the SNP and the Conservatives stitched up a deal to help out landlords. It is very disappointing that they couldn’t bring themselves to afford a similar benefit for private tenants.
“The First Minister said she wanted to build a fairer and more equal Scotland from this crisis, yet her party seem keen to make it less fair and less equal.”
Support for Landlords
SNP housing minister Kevin Stewart’s response to these proposals was that housing costs are the responsibility of the UK government and that tenants should apply for Universal Credit, washing his hands of the issue. However, when it comes to financial support for landlords, the Scottish government has been singing a very different tune. Just a few weeks prior the SNP launched the Private Rented Sector Landlord COVID-19 Loan Scheme, a £5million fund that offers interest free loans to landlords covering up to 100% of lost rental income.
Clearly money is available and the setting up of a tenants’ fund is within the power of the Scottish government, but instead they have given protections and funds to landlords. Yet it is tenants, not landlords, who face the prospect of eviction if the COVID crisis leaves them unable to pay their rent. One is left to wonder whose side the Scottish government is on.
Tenants have received assurances that for a six month period during the crisis, there will be a complete ban on evictions. This is of course welcome, but it only goes so far. If tenants are unable to pay their rent in full, arrears will still accumulate and will eventually need to be paid back. After the six months is over and the protections end, what then? There is the possibility of landlords accessing their hardship fund, evicting tenants in arrears after six months and then hiking up the rent for the next tenants in order to pay back the loan!
Tidal Wave of Evictions
The director of housing charity Shelter said, “it’s hard to see now what’s going to prevent a tidal wave or evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.”
Serious action is needed to ensure no one is forced to lose their home. As the greatest crisis in capitalist history gets underway, an economic slump deeper than the Great Depression, much more needs to be done.
All rent from this lockdown period should be immediately cancelled. Any big management companies or landlords owning multiple homes should have these properties expropriated, brought under public ownership and democratic control, and allocated on the basis of need. Similarly with any empty houses that are being used by speculators and investors.
This should go alongside a mass programme of council house building after the pandemic – involving the nationalisation of the banks, the land, and the major construction companies – in order to meet everybody’s housing needs.
The relatively new but growing tenants’ union, Living Rent has the potential to play a role in organising such action. It has already been exposing and campaigning against various landlords who have been taking advantage of the crisis. They should be backed up by the wider labour movement. The trade unions should contribute activists and finance to such campaigns.
The capitalists and the landlords – not workers – must be made to pay for this crisis!