No ban on evicting private tenants but courts confirm enforcement is on hold
COMMUNITIES Minister Deirdre Hargey has stopped short of announcing a temporary ban on private landlords evicting tenants during the coronavirus crisis.
But the impact of Covid-19 on the north's courts system is expected to put an effective hold on evictions.
On Thursday, new measures came into force in England and Wales stopping landlords from initiating any legal proceedings to evict tenants for three months.
All housing possession action in England and Wales was also suspended for 90 days from Friday. The UK Government said it will consider extending both periods.
The Irish Government announced two weeks ago that it intends to bring forward legislation banning evictions within the private rented sector and freezing rents during the coronavirus crisis.
With no bailiffs in Northern Ireland, evictions are operated through the Enforcement of Judgements Office (EJO).
The process normally begins by landlords issuing a notice to quit if a tenant defaults on rent. If the tenant remains in the property after the notice period, the landlord must then go to court for a possession order.
If a tenant still remains in the property, the landlord must then go to EJO, which will carry out the physical eviction.
The EJO has confirmed that the office is suspending the processing of any new applications for enforcement.
On Friday, Deidre Hargey said an agreement had been reached with all social housing landlords, ensuring that any social housing tenant facing difficulties paying rent during Covid-19 will not be evicted.
While she stopped short of announcing an outright ban on private landlords, Deirdre Hargey said in practice, the impact on the courts and the availability of benefits, means evictions should be avoided in the north.
The Department for Communities has said anyone experiencing difficulties paying their rent through loss of employment can get help with their housing costs by applying for universal credit online.
But the department has accepted that the level of rent due to landlords may be more than the housing cost element of universal credit.
As well as the increase to LHA rates, Ms Hargey said anyone who has lost their job and who signs on to universal credit can also apply for a discretionary housing payment to have their full rent paid for 13 weeks.
Sarah Creighton, an adviser with the body Housing Rights said: “It's really difficult for private sector tenants in particular. Really what we're advising people to do is speak to the landlord and see if the landlord will negotiate with them.
“Ask them to reduce the rent for a period of time, could they use their deposit to cover a month's rent and allow them to build their deposit up again? Or could the landlord postpone rent payment, because there are payment holidays available for buy-to-let mortgages.”
Another suggestion is whether rent could be off-set against work needed to be carried out within the property.
Housing Rights is also directing tenants, whose income has been impacted, to the Government schemes announced in the past week, or to the potential benefits they may qualify for.
The UK Government has already announced that mortgage lenders have agreed to offer a payment holiday of up to three months for homeowners experiencing difficulty as a result of Covid-19.
This has been extended to cover ‘buy to let' mortgages, to help landlords cope with lost income.