Landlords in England and Wales will be celebrating on Sunday, as the government’s eviction ban lifts. Many have spent lockdown itching to turf out their tenants: they’ve served 60,000 people with eviction notices since mid-March and threatened 174,000 with the same. Shelter estimates that the coronavirus crisis has put 227,000 private renters in England into arrears (and therefore at high risk of eviction), raising the total number of people currently in debt to their landlord to 442,000.
In Scotland, no ban was instituted, but rather an extension of the eviction notice period from one month to six. The effects of this eviction deferral will also soon start being felt, though Holyrood has now extended eviction prevention plans until March 2021.
However, landlords hoping to ride the wave of evictions – or “impending tsunami”, as London mayor Sadiq Khan has called it – may be disappointed. For since the government announced the ban five months ago, renters unions across the UK have anticipated an onslaught – and been organising to resist it.
Membership of renters unions has spiked during lockdown. Scotland’s Living Rent has had 500 members and supporters join since March; while 2000 have joined the London Renters Union (LRU). Meanwhile, community union Acorn has more than doubled its month-on-month growth and set up seven new branches. Many of those who’ve joined have done so out of fear of eviction – a fear unions have been working hard to assuage: Living Rent has trained over 100 members in eviction resistance, the LRU has trained more than 200, while Acorn has held roughly two dozen training sessions.
A pillar of this training is educating renters on their rights. In recent weeks, the Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU), formerly Tenants Union UK, has run a series of trainings in partnership with the Greater Manchester Law Centre on the two types of eviction notice renters usually receive: Section 21 or ‘no-fault’ evictions (which the Tories have repeatedly promised to scrap, but haven’t); and Section 8s, usually related to arrears.
What few tenants know, says Isaac Rose, an organiser for GMTU, is that eviction notices frequently contain errors that render them invalid – and that even when they don’t, legal proceedings typically take months, during which time they are entitled to stay put.
“It’s important tenants know that when you get an eviction notice, you don’t have to leave, that there’s a long process,” says Rose. “If you’re aware of that process, you’ve more confidence to deal with it. The union’s role is to provide that confidence.”
Rose acknowledges that some landlords will pursue the process to its conclusion. If they do, unions are prepared. He says GMTU intends to “make a spectacle of the legal process” as silent witnesses in courtrooms and on pickets outside courts. GMTU’s first picket is planned for Monday, the day the courts reopen, while the London Renters Union has a number of protests planned outside magistrates’ courts across the capital the same day.
“Our assessment is that if the courts are being slowed down, and it’s becoming a big issue in the judiciary, the kind of official wave of eviction threats, that will put pressure on the government to reinstate the eviction ban or bring in a rent cancellation,” Rose says.
Of course, landlords often take the law into their own hands. A number have attempted illegal evictions during lockdown; the LRU reckons it’s resisted about a dozen. Living Rent has a library of horror stories: in Edinburgh, a member named Stoyan returned home from Sweden to find his locks changed, leaving him unable to safely quarantine after his trip. At this point, the union’s expansion during lockdown bore fruit. Stoyan called his branch’s member defence team and a couple of days later, ten members joined him to march on his landlord’s house. They walked away with £2,000 in compensation and the cancellation of arrears.
Acorn is similarly hoping to capitalise on the outreach efforts they’ve made during lockdown. In the early days of the pandemic, the union established a coronavirus community support system, a network of mutual aid groups designed to fill in the gaps in council provision. As the end of the eviction ban has approached, the union has realised it’s sitting on a goldmine.
“We’ve already got these people organised, willing to help out in the community,” says Michael Scarborough, one of Acorn’s regional directors for Yorkshire and the Humber. “So we thought: ‘What’s the logical next step?’” Now, he tells Novara Media, the community support groups are being renamed community protection groups, and pivoting from collecting prescriptions to – among other things – resisting evictions.
Yet while eviction resistance is essential to a renters union’s work, and a moment at which to politicise members, for Clare Walden, a member solidarity organiser with the LRU, prevention is better than the cure. “By the time it gets to eviction resistance, that person has lost their right to live in the house,” she explains. “Eviction resistance looks good, but it’s buying time.”
As important as supporting members in these critical situations is, it’s preferable to prevent situations from becoming critical in the first place. Primarily, this means avoiding rent arrears, be that by providing template rent reduction request emails, negotiating with landlords on a member’s behalf, or supporting members to apply for discretionary housing payments from local authorities, when benefits don’t cover the rent.
If push comes to shove, however, renters stand ready to take on landlords – all the more so after a false start in June. “We were good to go on resisting evictions before the ban was extended,” says Scarborough. “The extension has only made us more prepared. The difference is that this time, we know that we can’t rely on the government to step in. We don’t want to fight, but if we have to, we will – so bring it on.”
Rivkah Brown is a writer and the editor of Vashti.
This article was corrected on 19 August 2020 to reflect the extension of eviction prevention plans in Scotland until 2021. The eviction notice extension timeframe has also been corrected; it previously said eviction notices in Scotland had been extended from two to three months.