Locked out: tenants In Scotland have faced losing their homes, even during the pandemic
“I’m terrified. If I move home, am I going to be back in the same situation in three years’ time?
“Because it’s taking its toll on me… so many things lately, I’m just getting that upset, like, crying myself to sleep sometimes.
“I just want to stay and not have to move again.”
John Paul Warrillow is one of many tenants who have been under threat of eviction during lockdown despite the supposed eviction ban.
And for him, it’s just one of a series of housing issues that have been affecting him since leaving care 18 years ago at the age of 16.
He has been in a private rental property in Largs for the last three years, a property he was forced to take after becoming homeless in Glasgow because if he didn’t accept it, he would be considered to be making himself intentionally homeless.
In the three years he has lived there the flat has never had working heating or hot water, even though he has repeatedly asked for repairs.
His only heat in winter is a halogen heater he bought himself.
His energy bills are £50-70 a week, even in summer, when he has no heating on at all, an issue he has never been able to resolve but which may relate to the non-functioning heating system in the flat.
Last year during lockdown his landlord issued him with two illegal eviction notices because he wanted to sell the flat rather than carry out the necessary repair work.
Warrillow tells Holyrood that were it not for tenants’ rights campaigners Living Rent stepping in, he would likely now be homeless again.
“They’ve been absolutely wonderful. If they hadn’t have got involved, I’d probably already be out on the street with nowhere to go.”
Meg Bishop, who is involved with Living Rent, is doing a master’s at the University of Edinburgh on evictions during the pandemic.
She found that between 25 March 2020 and 17 May 2021, 405 eviction hearings relating to the private rented sector had gone through the housing tribunal, meaning they were ready to be carried out as soon as restrictions lifted.
Of these, 277 evictions, about 68 per cent, were granted and 128 were rejected.
The majority, 155, of the granted evictions were because of Ground 12, which is that the tenant was in more than three months of arrears.
The second most frequent reason for evictions was landlords wanting to sell the property, which Bishop suggests may be linked to the booming property market, particularly in rural areas.
Only around 15 eviction orders related to anti-social behaviour or criminality.
For those that weren’t granted, it was because the application was frivolous or did not have the correct paperwork.
There was a significant drop in private rented sector evictions applications to the housing tribunal.
According to analysis by the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL), there were 254 evictions applications between 1 October 2020 and 18 March 2021, a 53 per cent drop on the 535 in the same period the year before.
But it notes with surprise that nearly 100 per cent of applications were granted where landlords had followed the correct procedures.
The SAL report comments: “No applications were refused on the grounds of reasonableness, which is particularly surprising given that all evictions where notice was served on or after 7 April 2020 were subject to a reasonableness test.”
Despite all grounds for eviction being made discretionary in the coronavirus legislation, meaning people’s circumstances could be taken into account in a decision, there is no sign of that being reflected at all by the tribunal.
“It doesn’t look like the discretionary grounds had actually protected tenants in that way,” Bishop says.
She adds: “If you look through the court records, it says, because it’s Ground 12, we have no option but to grant the eviction.
“So that’s still treating it as mandatory, even though in theory all grounds have become discretionary.”
Bishop also mentions one case Living Rent has been involved in where the tenant had negotiated a rent reduction with their landlord, but at the end of three months they were simply given notice to leave, treating the agreed reduction as arrears.
The tribunal cases are likely to be just a fraction of those who have been actually evicted because the majority of cases will not have gone to the tribunal; the tenant will simply have left when they were served an eviction notice, not knowing they have other options.
And the temporary ban on carrying out evictions, which only came into place in December, has not stopped some tenants from being pressured out.
“Lack of data collection means that evictions that happen before reaching the tribunal and illegal evictions go unnoticed,” says Bryce Goodall, also of Living Rent.
“And from our research and from Citizens Advice, we know that illegal evictions and harassment may be more common.
“Research data which we’ve collected indicates a potential increase in issues relating to private rented sector harassment, illegal evictions, with a number of instances of advice provided in this in this category increasing from 166 in April to December 2019 up to now 286 in April to December 2020.”
Bishop says: “When I’ve been speaking to tenants that have been evicted… although they’ve not been enforced legitimately through the sheriff’s office, in some instances tenants have left because they’ve been harassed out of their home sooner than that.
“And they haven’t felt safe enough to remain there after the eviction order was granted.”
She mentions one case where the tenant was receiving anonymous phone calls threatening to throw acid over her two young sons if she didn’t vacate the property. “So of course she left.”
In May, a couple of days before the moratorium on evictions was lifted across most of Scotland, Living Rent held a protest outside the Scottish Parliament with a sign planted in the ground for each of the eviction orders that had already been granted.
Bishop says: “I just had the whole wad of them sitting on my desk for over a week and it was really overwhelming to see that every piece of paper there was a granted eviction order.
“It’s a household, it’s a family, it’s a couple losing their home really now.”
And even among the evictions that are legal, some have been inhumane, given the circumstances.
She says: “I was speaking to a member who had taken ill and was hospitalised and is still awaiting emergency surgery.
“And despite that, despite them notifying their landlord of that, the sheriff office is still coming to see them… to kick them out of their home, despite the fact they can barely lift a box, let alone completely upend their lives…
“I was looking at some of the instructions that they’d given the sheriff officers, and it just said to get them out as quickly as legally possible.”
And although the Tenant Hardship Loan Fund became available from December, evidence suggests that it hasn’t helped that many of those who were struggling to pay their rent.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in February found that six per cent of private renters were in rent arrears, but there was low awareness of the protections that were in place.
Just 29 per cent aware that notice periods had been extended to six months in most cases, only 19 per cent aware that tribunals had discretionary powers and only 17 per cent aware there was financial help available for arrears.
JRF also found that just 16 per cent of those who had applied for a tenant hardship loan were actually granted one.
Living Rent is calling for a number of changes to the current system: extending the evictions ban to all tiers until 30 September as long as restrictions are in place, the extension of the notice periods for eviction and the pre-action requirements to be made permanent, damages of between six and 36 months’ rent to be awarded to tenants where the landlord has been found to have carried out an illegal eviction and a permanent ban on winter evictions between November and March.
Bishop warns that the situation won’t improve without substantial changes: “We need to do something if most people are being evicted because they’re in arrears. It probably means that their rent is too high.
“So we need things like rent controls, and we need a fairer tribunal system that is more accessible to tenants so that they can speak their case and explain why this has happened.
“We need to also have better repair services so tenants aren’t forced out of their home for other reasons”
She adds: “I think the whole thing is just sort of testament really to the lesser favour that’s shown to tenants as opposed to homeowners and landlords.
“It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s just what I see day to day with my research, that there’s a vested interest, I think, in keeping the property market afloat because so many people have their savings and assets tied up in housing.
“You can kind of sympathise with that if pensions are so low, but what is another person’s profit and fattening their wallet is another person’s home.”
The landlord’s story
When *Margaret retired seven years ago she bought a small flat to rent out and has had a number of tenants without any problems. In September 2020 she got a new tenant, a young man in his early 30s, who seemed very presentable, in work and with a deposit and referees.
After he moved in, he paid a couple of months’ rent and then stopped.
Margaret says she got a “bad feeling” then, because he was totally uncommunicative. After chasing him, it turned out he had lost his job.
He then seemed to get another job, and was paying “bits and pieces” but in January stopped paying altogether.
Margaret gave him information about the tenant hardship loan and guided him through the application process.
In March the loan scheme got in touch to say he had been awarded a loan of £2,000 and she could expect him to pay the arrears within the week. But she never saw any of the money.
He was not replying to any communications, so she decided to go and see whether any of the neighbours knew if he was still there.
When she got there, she found the place “completely trashed”.
He had stolen most of the furniture and contents and even ripped up the carpets. It has cost her £4,000 in repairs as well as months of lost rent.
“I’m totally sympathetic to honest, hard-working tenants who are going through some kind of hardship, and I would have supported them,” she says.
“I would let him live rent-free if I had evidence that it was to do with losing work.
“But what happened after that was just ridiculous.. I just felt everything was in favour of the tenants… it has been very upsetting.”
Fortunately, the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL) says this kind of experience is not common.
SAL chief executive John Blackwood said: “There have been a minority of tenants who may have taken advantage of these restrictions, but for the overwhelming majority of both tenants and landlords, the focus has been on sustaining tenancies and ensuring tenants are supported and eviction avoided.
“What the Scottish Government needs to ensure is that tenants do not build up rent arrears that they will struggle to pay off in the future and we fully support the £10m grant fund the Scottish Government has announced today to tackle this issue.”
*not her real name