Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay

Here is the plain reality of the economic situation. The economy is going to be to one extent or another shutdown for months. We don’t know to what extent, and we don’t know how many months. But we know that the economy we have is sufficiently fragile that it can’t go on like that for […]

Here is the plain reality of the economic situation. The economy is going to be to one extent or another shutdown for months. We don’t know to what extent, and we don’t know how many months. But we know that the economy we have is sufficiently fragile that it can’t go on like that for very long without crunch points coming. The question isn’t whether crunch points come, it is where they come. For Amazon, they want the crunch point to come in “unpaid leave”. Or in other words, they want their workers to take the hit. Amazon owner Jeff Bezos is the richest man on the planet, if there’s anyone in the whole world who could ride out a crisis like this it is him. Yet still he wants his low-paid employees who struggle to make ends meet at the best of times to pay for this crisis. This is class conflict in a pandemic. There is no other way of dressing it up. Who foots the bill? Jeff Bezos or the Amazon employee?

In the United States, President Donald Trump – billionaire property developer – has decided to halt all evictions and foreclosures. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Eton millionaire toff, has halted all evictions for three months. He has not as of yet announced a rent holiday yet, where as he has announced a mortgage holiday. That means, for example, in buy-to-let houses all over the UK, tenants will be paying landlords money that would usually pay off mortgages, but is simply going into bank accounts. It is wealth transfer from the poorest and most vulnerable to the better off. A bailout for mortgage-owners, not for tenants.

I’m sorry to say that what The Scottish Government is doing is even worse. Yesterday, Ministers announced new guidance stating that tenants should go to their landlord, and urged private and social landlords to be “flexible and understanding” but also added that landlords “must also be supported during this time”. Yeah, but which one is going to be made destitute in a pandemic, Scottish Government? Do you not realise there’s a fundamental power imbalance between landlord and tenant? It’s unconscionable to ask tenants to effectively negotiate with their landlord about rent and evictions at a time like this. As Source editor Sean Bell writes: “It should be borne in mind that other, less polite options remain available beyond the initiative of the UK and Scottish governments.” Living Rent has said they will soon be announcing a National Rent Strike unless Housing Minister Kevin Stewart commits to no evictions. This isn’t even about fairness at this point – it’s about necessity. If the Scottish Government want a situation where landlords are trying to evict people from their homes during a pandemic, that will be on them.

Everyone knows this is difficult. No one’s saying it would be easy to be a Minister right now. But they really need to get to grips with this: you can’t lead in a Pandemic by asking tenants to negotiate with landlords, or debtors with creditors, or workers with employers, or citizens with the tax man. That’s the absence of leadership. If the government don’t act, people will, because there’s been enough wealth transfer from poor to rich over the past 30 years. Not this time.