GRANTS for tenants in arrears of rent is a most welcome initiative from the Scottish Government, announced at the end of September this year.

The government has provided £10m to help those households worst affected by the pandemic to avoid eviction and homelessness.

Homeowners across the UK struggling to make their monthly mortgage due to the impact of Covid have been able to take a "mortgage holiday" - effectively deferring or reducing payments for up to six months. UK Finance confirmed that deferred mortgage payments peaked last June with 1.8m customers utilising the facility.

The issues of eviction, repossession and homelessness are once again in sharp focus following the lifting of the eviction ban when lockdown rules were first eased back in May/June.

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While the 2021 Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Act extends some legal protections for tenants until March 2022 - such as longer eviction notice periods - there were already a large number of cases before the court and tribunal.

The tenant grant fund could mean the difference between a tenant being able to successfully prevent or defend an eviction case or not. The grant can defray rent arrears accrued between 23 March 2020 and 9 August 2021. It's a one-off payment and the money is paid directly to the landlord.

The fund itself comprises of a one-off allocation of money to each local authority in Scotland, based on a distribution agreement with CoSLA. Grant funding is currently only open until the end of March 2022.

When the Scottish Government launched the tenant grant fund it said: "There is no application process for a tenant or landlord to use for the grant funding. Instead local authorities will use their discretion to determine whether a grant payment is appropriate in individual circumstances".

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That announcement should have rung the clanging chimes of doom. How can vulnerable tenants access a grant scheme when there is no application form or standard process? How are tenants at risk of homelessness to be made aware of this fund - especially those in private lets? Who decides eligibility criteria for grants when it appears there's no formal guidance or rules? How will individual local authorities know who to award a grant to?

You might have thought that given Scotland has a network of free advice agencies accredited through the Scottish Government's own Scottish national standards it would have been sensible to enable advisers or solicitors to make grant applications for clients facing eviction? Not least because the people who really need this grant will have already contacted an adviser or solicitor.

As far as I can ascertain most of Scotland's 32 local authorities have made no facility for adviser applications. It would appear the process operates through some unknown form of osmosis or the need to fill in a generic e-mail to a council's housing department.

How do tenants facing homelessness access the grant scheme then? When a housing association or private landlord intends to evict a tenant, they have to intimate a "section 11 notice" on the local authority. Councils like Glasgow work with law centres to try and ensure those at risk of homelessness access free legal representation.

The difficulty is that often people won't engage until a late stage in the eviction process, so the section 11 notice won't necessarily help with the take-up of the grant scheme anytime soon, and what about the thousands of cases currently in the system or where an order for ejection and removal has already been granted?

None of this should come as a surprise lest we forget the déjà vu of the Scottish Government's tenant hardship loan fund that was launched in December 2020. By August this year it was revealed under a freedom of information request that the £10m loan fund had only helped 207 tenants across Scotland with just over half a million pounds spent. Some 802 tenants had applied but were refused a loan for reasons such as not meeting the credit check. 

Not meeting a credit check was somewhat ironic as it could show how you really needed a grant and not a loan as the pandemic had shattered your finances.

It's not too late to save the day here. There's nothing to prevent the Scottish Government doing four things: (a) issue formal guidance to ensure equality of access to the grant scheme across Scotland, (b) facilitate a formal application process open to accredited tenant advisers, (c) extend the grant application deadline beyond March 2022 to ensure maximum take-up and (d) top up the scheme with additional monies once greater take-up is established.

Make no mistake. Spending a little extra on grants will save the taxpayer a fortune in avoiding the costs of homelessness as a result of the pandemic.