The ban on evictions was due to end earlier this month, but following a last-minute U-turn from the government, it has been extended by another four weeks.
The news will have caught many in the industry by surprise as it came just a few days before eviction cases were due to be heard in courts again from August 24.
The extension means the ban will now run until September 20, with repossession cases resuming on Monday September 21 – assuming that no further extensions take place.
The additional four weeks will a blow to those landlords contending with rent arrears or cases of anti-social behaviour, but it will give property professionals more time to prepare for recent changes to the evictions process.
These include a new pre-action protocol, an extended notice period and potentially longer waiting times for court hearings.
When the ban is lifted, letting agencies will play a crucial role in explaining the new system to landlords. Agents should also have systems in place to help landlords manage rent arrears in case the eviction ban is extended again.
Eviction changes - what are the details?
The impact of COVID-19 means that the process of repossessing a property through the courts will be different, with several changes for letting agents to consider.
Alongside news of the four-week extension, the government confirmed that any landlords serving an eviction notice will have to give six months' notice. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said this move is designed to 'support renters over winter'.
Another change, which will now be introduced from September 21, is the requirement for landlords to provide information on the renter's financial circumstances and the effect the pandemic has had on them when making possession claims relating to rent arrears.
If the information is not provided or is deemed inadequate by the courts, they will have the option of adjourning the case. Agents should be prepared to help landlords gather the necessary proof.
These changes, combined with the backlog of pre-lockdown cases which need to be heard, mean evicting a tenant through the courts may take longer than usual once the ban is lifted. The government is creating temporary 'Nightingale Courts' to deal with the backlog of cases.
It has been made clear that the courts will prioritise cases of extreme arrears accrued before lockdown, and cases of anti-social behaviour and domestic violence, once the eviction process resumes.
The new requirement to give additional information on tenants’ financial circumstances also suggests that the government wants to limit evictions pursued solely due to COVID-19 arrears.
The last-minute decision to extend the eviction ban demonstrates why it's vital for agencies to communicate the changing situation to landlords so they can assess their options carefully for when the ban is lifted.
Managing arrears effectively and preparing for eviction changes
With the eviction ban in force for at least another month, letting agents have a key role in helping landlords to manage rent arrears – either to limit the damage until eviction cases are heard again or to sustain the tenancy beyond that date.
It is also important for landlords to be aware of the ban extension and changes to the eviction process, particularly if they are affected by a significant long-term build-up of arrears or instances of domestic violence and anti-social behaviour.
If landlords want to work with tenants who have recently fallen into arrears, agents can help them to create affordable repayment plans while digitally recording all payments and automating arrears chasing.
This approach gives the best chance of recovering rent arrears and allows agents to maintain a clear paper trail in case the landlord decides to pursue an eviction in the future.
Ultimately, strong and effective communication with tenants can help to reduce the impact of rent arrears before they reach unmanageable levels.
As the eviction ban continues, agencies can provide landlords with a valuable service by managing arrears and recouping unpaid rent while sustaining viable tenancies, as well as preparing for new evidence requirements once courts start hearing eviction cases again.
*Neil Cobbold is Chief Sales Officer at PayProp