For much of the twentieth century, people renting from private landlords were able to stay in their homes for as long as they were paying the rent. Then, under section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, the Thatcher government introduced short-term tenancies of six months and gave landlords the power to evict tenants at the end of this period with just two months’ notice without even giving them a reason. These new powers became known as no-fault evictions, and they helped to make England’s renters among the most precarious in Europe.
Fast-forward thirty years and while Theresa May’s government is considering introducing longer tenancies, they’ve made no indication yet that section 21 will go. This means landlords will still be able to kick out their tenants when the fixed term ends. A coalition of grassroots campaigners led by Generation Rent, the New Economics Foundation, ACORN and the London Renters Union is arguing section 21 needs to be scrapped. Here are six reasons they’re right.
1. It’s the leading cause of homelessness.
Evictions are the number one cause of homelessness in England, and 80% of evictions are on no-fault grounds. It is because of the link between evictions and homelessness that groups like the Salvation Army are backing the campaign to end section 21.
2. It causes anxiety and damages communities.
Even for those unlikely to be made homeless, section 21 can mean constant anxiety and insecurity – particularly for the 1.8 million renter households with children or the growing number of older people renting privately. Insecurity harms quality of life for tenants, with private renters less likely than either owners or people in council housing to say they know lots of people in their local area, but more worried they will have to move within the next year.
3. It stops us complaining about our poor housing.
Around a third of privately-rented properties are in such a bad state they fail to meet the government’s own decent homes standard – that’s a much higher figure than for owner-occupied or social housing.
Section 21 is a major reason for these unacceptable conditions: the threat of being evicted makes renters scared to complain about disrepair, big rent increases or other problems. Research by Generation Rent shows a combination of section 21 and poor enforcement by local authorities leaves thousands of renters who complain about disrepair vulnerable to revenge evictions.
4. It is a gift to buy-to-let investors and pushes up house prices.
Landlord lobbying organisations boast that the introduction of section 21 made buy-to-let investment more attractive: the ability to remove tenants and cash in one’s investment with minimal fuss makes buying a property seem like a low-risk investment for amateur landlords, who can evict and sell up when prices increase. This fuels the buy-to-let market, pushing up house prices and forcing would-be homeowners to rent.
5. It denies renters the right to organise.
A trade union rep can take her employer to an industrial tribunal if she is sacked for her workplace activism. Renter organisers, on the other hand, have very few legal protections – despite the revenge eviction law, section 21 means there is little to stop landlords kicking out tenants who complain.
What’s more, tenants may be reluctant to join a renter union for fear of being evicted, and a high turnover of renters due to short-term contracts makes it hard to sustain organising over time. Removing section 21 would empower renter unions and be the first step in establishing a renter’s right to organise (other measures that would help include obliging landlords to recognise renter unions, introducing the right to withhold rent and creating a simpler legal system for housing law).
6. The government’s proposed reforms aren’t enough.
That the government has finally admitted England’s 11 million private tenants need greater security shows they have noticed renters have become more politically powerful, with many switching to Labour at the last election and costing the Tories their majority.
However, talk is cheap and the government’s new proposals for three-year tenancies are lacking: it isn’t even clear whether they’ll introduce new laws to protect renters or simply rely on ‘education’ to encourage landlords to offer longer contracts. Even if the government did make three-year tenancies mandatory, renters would still suffer from insecurity because the proposed changes won’t get rid of section 21.
The introduction of section 21 produced the precarious private renter and benefited the buy-to-let investor. But it doesn’t have to be this way: in Germany, tenancies are indefinite and properties are often bought and sold with tenants included; across the border, the Scottish government has already acted to protect tenants by restricting no-fault evictions there.
We can win this fight. There are growing numbers of renters – enough to outnumber owners in well over 100 parliamentary seats by the next election – and a coalition that includes Jeremy Corbyn, the London Assembly and The Times now supports getting rid of section 21. By getting active, renters can win security and the right to organise, and in doing that we will strengthen our hand for future fights over rent and living conditions.