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Rising to the COVID-19 challenge

Julie James sets out the Welsh Government response to Coronavirus and the support available to homeless people, tenants, home owners, landlords and local authorities

We are living in unprecedented times. It’s a much used phrase but sadly it’s true. The fight against COVID-19 creates a fast moving and rapidly changing situation and despite not always having all the answers, we are working at pace and scale, across government, the public sector and with our other partners to put emergency measures in place.

I want to place on record my huge thanks and appreciation for everything you are doing. It’s making a real difference on the ground. The coming weeks and months are likely to be even more challenging, with further impacts on every person and every aspect of our lives.

As part of our response to date, we have already published guidance and provided additional funding to support local authorities in assisting the most vulnerable. These initial responses have focused, understandably, on protecting people who are at the acute end of homelessness, either rough sleeping or in inappropriate temporary accommodation.

The additional £10 million in emergency support will enable local authorities to secure the accommodation needed to ensure those without a home can be protected, supported, and isolated if necessary. This could include the block purchase of B&B or hotel rooms, empty student accommodation and other premises to operate alongside existing provision.

It will enable homeless people or those sleeping rough to adhere to public health guidance on hygiene or isolation. They will have the support and resources needed to protect themselves during the outbreak and we have set out clear guidance to local authorities on the approach which should be taken. Guidance to assist those working in the emergency shelter, hostel and substance misuse sector has also been issued to ensure high quality support, hygiene standards and appropriate monitoring for symptoms and illness.

Many people who rent their home will be particularly concerned. All tenants who can still pay their rent need to do so but I would urge those who are struggling, to speak to their landlords to find a way forward. We don’t want anyone put under any undue financial pressure if there is a way forward. No renter in Wales will be forced out of their home during this pandemic, which is why we have announced that measures in the UK Government’s emergency legislation, to provide greater protection from eviction for tenants, will also apply to Wales.

The additional protection will be achieved by increasing the notice period for all possession grounds to three months, during the period up to 30th September. The legislation also includes powers for the Welsh ministers to increase the notice period to up to six months and for the period to be extended beyond September.

In an effort to protect landlords, the three-month mortgage payment holiday will be extended to Buy to Let mortgages. I urge all landlords in Wales to pass on any mortgage holidays onto their tenants, to try and ease the financial burden on them during this challenging time.

I am also pleased the Welsh Local Government Association and Community Housing Cymru have confirmed there will be no evictions from any social housing in Wales as a result of financial hardship due to the pandemic. This is a positive first step which is being followed by both sectors working to develop flexible options for tenants who do run into financial difficulties.

We hope these immediate measures will alleviate pressures on landlords and tenants. It will not solve all of the issues facing tenants and landlords and we are mindful of the need to balance supporting landlords who rely on rental incomes, with ensuring no one finds themselves evicted during or as a result of this crisis. In light of this we will continue to consider what other measures are necessary to address these issues and support the robustness of the rental sector.

The social housing sector always has and always will play a huge part in providing essential support for vulnerable tenants or tenants facing hardship. I know there are fantastic schemes run by social landlords and housing associations and again I thank everyone in the sector for all they have done so far to support their tenants to stay in their homes.

This pandemic will not last and working towards long term policies and prevention is still a priority for Welsh ministers. I will do everything in my power to ensure that artificial barriers to doing the right thing are removed so that collectively we can respond swiftly and flexibly to this unprecedented situation. We will not lose sight of our ambition to end homelessness but our focus must be on rising to the challenges of COVID-19 first and foremost. I know you will agree.

Julie James AM is minister for housing and local government

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