IIf it seemed that it would take a long time to arrive, it is because it has. Amidst the gaudy pomp and ceremony, the Queen’s speech contained a series of promises that could substantially improve the lives of millions of tenants across the UK. Sitting against an almost comically golden backdrop, Prince Charles spoke of a government willing to “improve regulation of social housing, strengthen tenants’ rights and ensure safer, better quality homes.”
The tenant reform bill contains a particularly striking compromise. For years, housing campaigners and charities have fought for the abolition of section 21 of the Housing Act (1988), an insidious piece of Thatcherite legislation that became better known as “no-fault evictions”. The premise is quite simple. Under the terms of section 21, private landlords have been able to evict tenants without a reason and with only two months’ notice.
This is not the first time such a promise has been made. In the spring of 2019, Theresa May’s government expressed its intention to scrap no-fault evictions, after then-Housing Minister James Brokenshire apparently experienced a Damascene moment of clarity during a visit to a homeless shelter. in Bristol. But the next three years only saw the practice intensify, despite a brief pause caused by the temporary ban on evictions due to the pandemic. According to research by Shelter, the UK’s largest housing charity, an additional 200,000 private tenants in England have received no-fault evictions since the first scrapping commitment was issued, at the rate of one every seven minutes. The change was supposed to finally arrive in 2021, before being shelved until last week.
Although the latest pledge has been welcomed by activists and housing charities, most have taken a note of caution. Promises are easily made. Guiding them through the law is another matter entirely. “The faster we put no-fault evictions in the scrap yard, the better,” said Polly Neate, executive director of Shelter. “This unfair practice has no place in our society and the government agrees, but its promises are just words on a page until they become law. The government needs to finish the job and get rid of section 21, because every minute wasted puts tenants at risk.”
The idea of a “no-fault eviction” always had an air of false moral neutrality. Perhaps the intention was to provide a few crumbs of comfort, knowing at least that you were not expected to bear any blame for being kicked out of your home with minimal legal notice. It is a problem that has crossed demographics and regions. A legally incorporated form of precariousness that has hit north and south, young and old alike. The young family in Bedfordshire who had to fight for a new place, only to find themselves paying an extra £350 a month and with their savings destroyed. The woman and her daughter in Manchester, expelled after 15 years for daring to request repairs to their home. Many have spoken of perpetual stress amounting to physical illness.
While it’s certainly a positive step, removing Section 21 doesn’t do much to address the problem of spiraling rents. After all, much has been written recently about the cost-of-living crisis, a catastrophe of skyrocketing prices that seemingly extends to all the essentials of daily life, where food, fuel and shelter are increasingly more sources of anxiety for millions. Over the past year, private rentals have risen at record rates across the UK, with demand far outstripping supply (on some property websites, prospective tenants now outnumber available properties by a factor of three to one). By 2024, the number of homeless people is expected to increase by a third. A “tidal wave” of want and misery is coming, as local authorities and charities have warned. Some 66,000 people are expected to be forced to live in the hidden precariousness of sofa-surfing or desperately inadequate temporary accommodation. Others will be out on the streets, trying to fend for themselves as best they can. More than 1,200 people in the UK died homeless in 2021, an increase of 32% over the course of a year.
Unsurprisingly, the owners’ trade press has not reacted kindly to the proposed changes. In an open letter to Shelter, the chief executive of the National Association of Residential Owners accused the charity of presenting “a disappointingly one-sided image” and “sensationalizing” the issue. Some have even complained about the gross injustice done to the overwhelming majority of benevolent and hard-working landlords, who will now find it more difficult to evict problem tenants. A buy-to-let landlord (with seven properties spread across Norfolk) explained to the Telegraph that the abolition of section 21 had scared her so much that she felt she had no choice but to evict a long-term tenant of six years, who had never stopped paying rent. After refurbishing the house, he had raised the rent by £130 a month, while the ex-tenant was forced to surf on the sofa.
The UK’s absurdly overheated “housing market” has long been in dire need of reform. Decades of lack of regulation and structural neglect have led to a terribly unbalanced present, where rising homelessness and chronic anxiety have somehow become entrenched facts of everyday life. This was not inevitable, and change is always possible. The abolition of section 21 will be a welcome step, provided it eventually happens. But there is much more to do.