EVICTIONS: 21st CENTURY COVID CLEARANCES

Landlords have served hundreds of eviction notices during lockdown

By Investigative reporter Niall Christie in The Ferret

Hundreds of tenants in Scotland have been handed eviction notices since the beginning of lockdown, despite government advice for landlords to be flexible with renters during the pandemic.

Campaigners and politicians, including Dumbarton man Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Green Party at Holyrood, have already warned of a “tidal wave of evictions” starting across Scotland when courts are allowed to re-open in October. They have called for the Scottish Government to put in place an extended eviction ban until next April.

Now documents obtained using Freedom of Information legislation, designed to make council and other public bodies reveal what they are reluctant to disclose, from the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service have revealed some eviction notices were even served to tenants on the day lockdown measures in Scotland were announced.

In total 350 notices instructing people to leave their homes have been lodged with the courts since Scotland’s first case of coronavirus in March.

Early in lockdown the Scottish Government moved to reassure renters, with Nicola Sturgeon telling MSPs the Scottish Government would “not hesitate” to intervene in issues “that put people in an unfair position” during the crisis.

That has not yet happened, but a temporary suspension of tribunal hearings was put in place, but these hearings have now restarted despite the First Minister’s warnings, meaning tenants could be forced from their homes.

Insufficient protection

However Shelter Scotland claims the protections are not sufficient.

Emergency coronavirus legislation brought in by the government only covers tenants who received notices on or after April 7.

Even in those cases where they were submitted after this date, landlords can simply wait until the act expires at the end of September, and serve a Notice to Leave on 1 October. Only 28 days’ notice must be provided before making an application for an eviction order.

According to the statistics obtained by The Ferret, 133 households were given notices in the period between the beginning of the pandemic and the legislation coming into effect, meaning people can now be brought through tribunals and face eviction from their homes.

A further 218 tenants have had eviction notices filed against them since 7 April, and are protected until 10 October.

The data shows that despite unprecedented circumstances presented by the pandemic, landlords issued three eviction notices on the day lockdown measures were announced across the UK. A further five were delivered the following week.

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In April and May just 61 and 37 households respectively were informed they would be removed from their homes – significantly lower than 2019’s monthly average of 146. But by June the number of households threatened with eviction jumped to 76.

Housing charities claim they are already seeing the number of people coming to them in crisis beginning to return to pre-lockdown levels. They warn that without further action Scotland will see higher than normal levels of people facing eviction in the months ahead due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

Writing to the Scottish Government last week, Shelter Scotland called for Housing Minister Kevin Stewart to extend emergency powers against eviction when the parliament next meets at Holyrood on Tuesday, 11 August.

The charity has said tenants should be safeguarded until April 2021, urging the government to back these measures in the coming days.

Alison Watson, director of Shelter Scotland, said: “It’s unreasonable to put people out onto the streets when we’re still far from safety and it could affect their health and the health of other people. We just have to look to Aberdeen, where clients are coming to us in crisis, facing the threat of eviction when restrictions on movement are being reintroduced.

The Scottish Government can’t leave it to tenants and landlords to sort out on their own. There is too much at stake and it is clear from the figures for eviction order applications that many tenants aren’t being offered flexibility by their landlord.

ALISON WATSON, SHELTER SCOTLAND

“We’ve argued all along that people whose cases have already begun should be covered by emergency protections.

“The Scottish Government can’t leave it to tenants and landlords to sort out on their own. There is too much at stake and it is clear from the figures for eviction order applications that many tenants aren’t being offered flexibility by their landlord.”

Ola Olsinova, 28, from Edinburgh, is one of those affected. She is currently furloughed from her hospitality job and fears she will be left without any income as a result of the shutdown in the industry during the pandemic.

Olsinova and her flatmate, who has also been made unemployed as a result of coronavirus, now face being forced to leave their property in Newington in the coming months, and received an eviction notice last month.

Despite assurances in March from their landlord that they would be allowed to stay, their landlord has now decided to sell the flat.

At present they have been given until January to move out, but have asked for an extension to allow them more time to find work and a new place to live. The women plan to take their landlord to tribunal if their request is denied.

‘Profit over people’

Olisinova said the stress of the last month has taken its toll on them both, and called for an extended freeze on evictions in Scotland to avoid landlords “chucking people out for profit”.

She added: “They told us we were being evicted and we have both, for all intents and purposes, lost our jobs. They said it is difficult for landlords at the moment, but it is way more difficult for us and we could be homeless because of it.

“I’m trying to be positive, and I hope I won’t end up on the street. But the landlord doesn’t know that, and he didn’t make sure that’s the case.

“I’m not happy with any of this – it feels like really awful timing. If they have to sell it for some reason, they have to ensure that we can stay on. Our whole worlds have fallen apart.”

She and her flatmate have been supported in their case by Scottish tenants’ union Living Rent and their “member defence” team.

The union has been critical of the Scottish Government’s support for tenants, saying the current eviction ban should be extended and rent control measures put in place.

Living Rent’s Gordon Maloney said: “The scale of eviction notices served to Scottish tenants during an international pandemic is absolutely shocking.

“This number, along with tenants who have come to Living Rent under threat of eviction, clearly shows that tenants remain insufficiently protected, whilst landlords have been supported throughout.”

The SNP administration have faced criticism after rejecting proposals to protect renters in Scotland

The amendments, lodged by Andy Wightman MP as part of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill in May, would have seen a two-year rent freeze introduced and arrears built up during the emergency period disregarded.

Following the rejection of this amendment, the number of eviction notices being lodged daily in Scotland increased by a third.

Prior to lockdown measures being introduced in Scotland, around 35 eviction notices were submitted on average to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service each week, dropping to around 11 after restrictions were put in place. These have crept back up to an average of 15 per week since the end of May.

Hundreds of renters up and down the country have been treated appallingly, with eviction notices hanging over their heads in the middle of a global pandemic.

PATRICK HARVIE

Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie hit out at the government’s refusal to support protections, claiming the SNP have “sided with landlords”.

He warned of the “tidal wave of evictions” expected in Scotland, claiming the government still has time to prevent hundreds from losing their homes.

Harvie added: “The Scottish Government has actively rejected multiple opportunities to protect tenants, instead preferring to create a so-called ‘hardship fund’ for landlords.

“Now we see that hundreds of renters up and down the country have been treated appallingly, with eviction notices hanging over their heads in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Representatives for landlords also raised concerns about what they described as “inadequate” levels of financial support for tenants, urging the government to “urgently” address this.

John Blackwood, chief executive of the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL), said if the government helped tenants pay their rent, there would be no need for evictions to take place.

He added: “Encouraging landlords and tenants to work together is the most effective way of ensuring a key part of the Scottish housing sector does not collapse.

“We have been clear throughout the pandemic that there is inadequate financial support for tenants and this must be urgently addressed.”

But the Scottish Government refutes suggestions adequate protections have not been put in place, pointing to the implementation of emergency legislation requiring extended notice periods for evictions.

A spokesperson told the Ferret that Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, will be writing to private tenants in the next week, signposting them to support.

They added: “No one should face eviction during this emergency period.

“By extending the notice period a landlord must give, we are ensuring that tenants have time to access available support in the short term and – if necessary – give them time to plan for the longer term, as we recover from this unprecedented crisis.”

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