The legal situation has been changing so rapidly that even full-timers are struggling to keep up, but with the introduction of Practice Direction 51Z it looks like eviction proceedings are finally off the table for now and we have time to take stock of what is now utterly uncharted territory in British housing.
Minutes after I’d finished an article regarding the situation regarding squats and ongoing evictions in Britain the information became outdated, as emergency procedural changes were brought in by the government, in theory protecting everyone, squatters, renters, and the street homeless, from the risks of being out on the streets during this period. Let’s explore what each of these measures might realistically mean.
Up until this moment, the government had promised a three-month breather for mortgage repayments, and then – under pressure – caved and stated that tenants who fail to pay rent will be protected from eviction for the next three months. This does not mean a lot in practice, as the rent still needs to be paid, and agreements for doing so settled on. Under a regular Section 8 eviction for renters there is a two-month notice period anyway, thus the Coronavirus Act 2020 only grants a further four weeks notice. This still leaves many in hugely stressful positions, knowing that come the end of the grace period there will be a lot of landlords looking to make up for lost time in pursuing possession orders.
Squatters were (again, until now) not considered part of the equation. The Pie ‘n’ Mash Autonomous Cafe in South London was evicted on the day it was to become the first Mutual Aid Centre (following the rise of the autonomously-organised Mutual Aid groups to assist people affected by the coronavirus) — the same day that it was announced that renters would be protected from eviction. Multiple evictions took place in the following days across the country, including the brutal eviction of a squatted homeless shelter in Brighton just days ago, seemingly a rush by owners and bailiff companies to finish their business in the case that the government prevented them from doing so in the future. More cases were confirmed to go ahead in the court system, even as the courts closed services, and challenges launched by the Advisory Service for Squatters fell on the deaf ears of the particularly anti-squatter judges.
A leak from a property management company to the newspapers also showed that owners were also keen to push through as many rental evictions as possible before it became too difficult to do, and as a result were hiring more and more bailiffs to carry out the evictions before total lockdown. Bailiffs are not known for their empathy, and across the nation evictions took place, with those executing them happy to remove people from their homes while wearing protective facemasks and rubber gloves.
However, as of March 27th, under the instruction of the Master of the Rolls a new civil procedural rule was brought into place – Practice Direction 51Z. PD 51Z came in with immediate effect, putting a 90-day stay on all possession proceedings, seemingly including squatting cases, as they are somewhat inseparable from other trespassing cases. The question still remains as to whether a writ that has already been issued in the High Court can still be enforced by the bailiff companies (the High Court Enforcement Officers Association believe they can be). On top of this, there is the risk that without a legal framework in place, there is the possibility of a rise in illegal evictions as landlords take matters into their own hands (one person in an organising whatsapp chat already had the locks changed on them).
And of those who sleep on the street? New instruction from central government on the same day was that all local councils were to take responsibility for housing every rough sleeper in their borough, whether in hostels, hotels, or night shelters. This request came without any guarantee of funding of reimbursement. With some night shelters closing down due to their communal nature and therefore risk of contracting the virus, the council would be left to financially convince hotels and the like to remain open. Previously grassroots organisations managed to wrangle beds for rough sleepers in the Islington borough, but the reality is (having spoken with some people working with them) that with lack of access to funds a lot of the people offered places just ended up back on the streets anyway as that is what is familiar to them, and it’s how people get money. Presumably the same issues will arise in simply ordering that every homeless person be housed this weekend. Without addressing the wider issues it fails to actually solve the problem.
So we are left with a situation that has some promise of safety and security for the crisis period, but let’s not give credit to the government, who only took these certain steps after massive pressure from the public. It all leaves a lot to be desired. Rent arrears, illegal evictions, and continued homelessness. What can be done then, or is being done?
Across the country Mutual Aid groups have sprung up, to coordinate assistance between neighbourhoods during this time. Some groups have been procuring items for NHS workers, others for those in isolation, or who are sleeping rough and don’t have access to necessary goods.
The London Renters Union is organising to provide support and build pressure to have rents frozen. A separate affiliation of anarchist groups have pushed for a Rent Strike in London (sorry for the London-centric info, use your local Mutual Aid group to find or organise a rent strike in your area!). Joining these groups and their actions is important, but organising within your local housing community is also just important, as these things can only work with a reliance on the people around us.
Shelter has provided a good guidance sheet regarding your housing rights during this period, and is worth a read.
With the 90-day break on eviction proceedings, squatters are looking to open up more buildings in the hope that they can be used to house safely those that need to isolate more extremely during this period, whether from other squats or people who are street homeless. In Berlin anarchists and squatters achieved this on Saturday 28th as part of the Housing Action Day 2020.
The important thing that we must take from all this is that we can’t just write this off as a crisis to be recovered from, to get back to normal. The system is broken and we need to create new ways of living, of fighting. In 3 months time we don’t want everyone to face an inevitability of mass evictions as landlords seek to make up for lost time and money. We must build strong relationships with people in our local areas, create and strengthen networks to resist evictions, and move forward with a conviction that all should be housed including the homeless.
Pic: A sign from the evicted Brighton squat, courtesy of DIY Collective