The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has issued three guidance documents in light of the coronavirus crisis.
Issued on 28 March 2020, they are:
They're available as pdfs. The guidance is not statutory but 'advisory', and applies to England.
I've attempted to summarise some of the main points below.
The guidance makes some basic points which housing advisors will already be aware of, eg:
The extension of notice periods and stay on possession proceedings is detailed. It's suggested landlords should not issue possession notices or apply for possession unless there's 'a very good reason to do so'.
Points of information include:
Advisors clearly have a crucial role in clarifying occupiers' status and in communicating this to landlords where appropriate. The distinction between licences that are excluded and those attracting the basic protection of a court order is crucial.
At the risk of getting on my soapbox, the current crisis does bring into sharp relief the failure of some councils to ensure staff are adequately trained on landlord and tenant law. The variety of ways in which people occupy their homes need careful consideration and advisors need to successfully navigate the complex rules concerning security of tenure.
I've lost count of the number of times housing managers have told me their training budget is inadequate. While council budgets have undoubtedly been strained in recent years, training on tenure is a core activity.
Close liaison with legal departments and local housing solicitors is likely to be essential during the current crisis.
The emphasis is on health and safety:
...it's vital that local authorities, landlords and tenants work together to keep rented properties safe.
But a pragmatic approach is needed:
It has never been more important that landlords and tenants take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to resolving issues. Tenants should let their landlords know early if there is a problem and landlords should take appropriate action.
It is stated that:
Urgent health and safety issues are those affecting the occupier's ability to:
This might include (but is not limited to):
Inspections and testing of fire alarms and emergency lighting systems can also take place.
If an urgent inspection or works are required but an occupier suspects they may have the virus, they should inform the landlord and sensible precautions should be taken.
Gas and electrical safety
Landlords should make every effort to comply with their regulatory obligations, including gas safety rules and the new electrical safety regulations coming into force on 1 July 2020 (for new tenancies) and 1 April 2021 (for existing tenancies).
In summary the new electrical regulations require landlords to:
It is stated that landlords who can show they've taken reasonable steps to comply in relation to gas and electrical safety are not in breach of duty. As landlord and tenant specialist David Smith points out this is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Rather, councils and the HSE have discretion not to enforce and prosecute. One would expect this to be the approach where landlords have taken all reasonable steps.
Wise landlords will be documenting every action they take. In particular they should be advised to record any inability to engage a contractor or secure access to premises. Many tenants will understandably be refusing access.
There's also guidance, at 3.4 to 3.5 and 3.11 on delaying planned moves where possible. Persons with symptoms or who are self-isolating should not move for the time being.
Specific guidance on moving is also available (albeit that it mostly relates to property sales rather than rentals).
HMOs and shared accommodation
The key points here are:
The full title of the 'technical guidance' on notices and possession proceedings is 'Coronavirus Act 2020 and renting - Annex A - technical guidance for landlords on the provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020'.
After stating that landlords should not commence or continue possession proceedings without a very good reason, the document gives basic guidance on serving the following types of notice:
There are hyperlinks to the updated notices on the Government's website, following the lengthening of notice periods to three months.
Page 5 list the circumstances in which a landlord of an assured shorthold tenant cannot give a Notice Requiring Possession under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. At the risk of sounding churlish in the present emergency I wouldn't suggest it's comprehensive, provides the clearest explanation or wholly accurate.
For example, the non-protection of a tenancy deposit will not prevent a section 21 notice being effective only where "the tenancy started after April 2007".
The third document gives guidance for councils on enforcing standards in rented properties during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In light of Coronavirus:
...it may be harder for local authorities to carry out their usual work. Inspecting properties and taking enforcement action may be affected by issues around resources or tenants maintaining strict separation. Landlords may also find it harder to comply with their legal obligations for the same reasons.
Some key points are:
So a lot of information to digest. At a very busy time.
Local authority managers will want to consider how they can effectively cascade information to staff, particularly when many are working from home and at capacity.