The “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” campaign, organised by the London Renters Unionc (LRU), comes after hundreds of students across the UK began withholding their rent because of the crisis.
The LRU say 2,500 people have pledged online to withhold enough of their rent to meet their basic needs including food and bills during the pandemic.
It comes after the New Economics Foundation thinktank recommended that private rent should be suspended for three months from May to help around 1.2 million at renters at risk of losing their jobs during the pandemic who could miss out on government support schemes.
Activists believe there is strong public support for their campaign to withhold rent after a YouGov survey, conducted on behalf of LRU last month, found that 45 per cent of people thought other essentials should take priority over rental payments.
More than 20 per cent of those surveyed thought people who are “struggling to make ends meet” should not have to pay rent at all during the pandemic.
Zara, 40, an organiser with the LRU who facilitates parenting courses for a local authority, says that because of lockdown she has earned less than half of her normal income. She is not eligible for any of the government’s support schemes to help workers or universal credit, and has found it impossible to pay rent.
“Our landlord already wanted to evict us, and now he’s trying to get us declared bankrupt,” she said. “I don’t want my children to be worried that they might lose their home. I want to protect them from this.
Zara said the government is currently “prioritising landlords’ profits over renters’ survival”.
In March, the government announced a three-month suspension on evictions to protect tenants who have lost income due to coronavirus. Landlords are also able to apply for a three-month mortgage holiday if their tenants are under financial strain.
However, housing campaigners say that this does not go far enough, and warn thousands of private renters could see their tenancies end as soon as the emergency eviction suspension does on 25 June.
Last month, the LRU, Acorn renters Union and Living Rent jointly sent a letter to the government asking it to suspend all rent for the duration of the crisis, to cancel all debt already accrued and to put in place stronger protections against evictions.
The letter noted that thousands of renters have joined tenant and community unions since lockdown began. “Together, we will continue to organised to protect our homes and our communities, and we are ready to take further collective action if the government fails to adequately address the growing coronavirus rent crisis,” it read.
A Ministry of Housing spokesperson said the government had put in place “unprecedented measures to support tenants facing financial hardship because of coronavirus”.
“Emergency legislation is now in force meaning landlords cannot evict tenants for three months and we will keep under review," they said. "We are also supporting businesses to protect jobs and incomes, as well as strengthening the welfare safety net with a nearly £7 billion boost and by increasing the Local Housing Allowance.
“We are carefully considering the next steps on how best to support both tenants and landlords to ensure fairness in the rental market."
But Charlotte, a 29-year-old freelancer and member of the LRU said the struggles many renters face during the pandemic are being ignored by the government.
She has been withholding her rent for more than three months after losing 80 per cent of her income since lockdown began and discovering that she was ineligible for the government’s self-employment income support scheme.
“My landlord refused to accept that we had no savings and just couldn’t pay the rent that month," she said. "They said they were trying to be compassionate, but suggested we take out a loan to pay the rent.
"It feels like we’re still being used to make a profit from in the middle of a pandemic.”