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Will Government Rental Reforms Actually End “Unfair” Evictions?

(Alamy)

6 min read

Back in April 2019, the May government announced “the end to unfair evictions”. That was just a mite premature: four years and three prime ministers later, “no fault” or Section 21 evictions remain as much a feature of the housing market as they ever did.

But with the Renters Reform Bill starting to make its way through Parliament at last, will it live up to the promise of “the biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”?

It was the last shake up of rental legislation, the Housing Act 1988, that created no-fault evictions in the first place, by giving landlords the power to evict tenants at just two months' notice without any reason whatsoever. (“Section 21” refers to the clause of that act.) Back then, private renting was still a largely transient state, used largely by students and others who needed short-term housing, before moving onto social housing or ownership.

Today, though, the Private Rental Sector (PRS) is home to nearly 11 million people. Many of these have little immediate prospect of moving onto something more secure; millions of them are children. So Section 21 doesn’t just prioritise landlord’s property rights over the tenant’s rights not to be made homeless, leaving vast numbers of families at risk of sudden, life-wrecking eviction: it’s also contributed to the poor maintenance of the sector, by leaving tenants unable to complain about conditions in the properties they rent, for fear of “revenge eviction”.

Hence the Renters Reform Bill, which had its first reading on 17 May. The bill aims to abolish Section 21 evictions, and move all renters onto rolling periodic contracts: these would have an up-front period of security in which tenants can’t be evicted, after which the grounds for eviction would be stricter than at present. Balancing that would be streamlined powers for landlords to evict tenants for anti-social behaviour or persistant rent arrears; and protections for cases in which landlords need their properties back for personal reasons (for sale, occupation, or to house a family member).

The bill would also create a “Property Portal”, a sort of registration scheme to help landlords understand the rules and show they’re following them; and an ombudsman, empowered to fine or ban landlords, to reduce tenants’ reliance on backlogged courts. All this should mean greater visibility of who landlords actually are, hopefully making it easier for councils to enforce their existing powers, despite their lack of cash. We’ll see.

The government also promises that the bill “will ensure landlords do not unreasonably withhold consent when a tenant requests to have a pet in their home”, although details of how are a bit sparse.

But a number of other problems remain with the bill, from the perspective of tenants groups. (Those on the other side of the deal may disagree.) One is that the protected period in which landlords can’t use “landlord needs” grounds to evict tenants has been watered down from two years, in the 2019 consultation documents, to just six months. That means tenants could still be given two months notice, just four months after taking occupation: hardly the new, more secure foundation for family life the bill had promised. (Housing charity Shelter wants a four month notice period, and a two year protected one.)

The exact terms of those landlord needs exceptions are also worrying tenants’ rights groups. Few would argue against some kind of mechanism by which landlords can occupy or sell their property; but a “no reletting period” lasting just three months may not be enough to deter dodgier landlords from claiming they’re going to sell up, to evict an inconvenient tenant, and then later magically changing their minds: Section 21 by the back door. Preventing that may require longer no-letting periods or punitive fines.

Other aspects of the bill may actually be backward steps. Jamie Thunder, a policy officer at the anti-poverty group Z2K, points out that the bill would create a new “mandatory ground” for eviction in cases in which a tenant had been more than two-months in arrears three times over a three year period. On the face of it, that would mean that a court would have no choice but to evict, even if the arrears had been paid off.

Shelter, meanwhile, worries that aspects of the bill could perversely increase the risk of homelessness: the stronger rules against anti-social behaviour, in which vulnerable tenants could face instant eviction for “nuisance or annoyance”; the amendments to existing homelessness legislation, which remove the right of tenants who’ve received a possession notice to immediately access council assistance.

Last but not least, the proposed legislation does nothing to ban discrimination against families or those on benefits. Stronger rules against eviction will be of little comfort to those who can’t rent a home at all.

Despite the hype, this bill as written doesn’t end no fault evictions at all, merely no reason evictions. The protection of landlord property rights mean that “there will be situations where a tenant is not at fault but can still be evicted”, says Generation Rent’s Dan Wilson-Craw.

Z2K’s Thunder makes the same point, adding that “the elephant in the room” is affordability: “All the security from eviction in the world doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pay your rent.” The inability to entirely legislate away the insecurity of the PRS, one might think, makes a pretty good argument for a housing system that builds more, and more social homes, so that tenants no longer compete for scarce private rental housing.

There are many reasons why the bill has taken this long to appear – an election, a pandemic, the rolling crisis that was 2022 – but one is that it’s not clear how bothered the government actually is about reform. Renters, after all, rarely vote Tory, and some analysts doubt the bill would have made it to parliament at all without the personal enthusiasm of housing secretary Michael Gove. What’s more, there’s still time for plenty of lobbying before it actually becomes law: Propertymark, the membership body for letting agents, has promised to send a briefing to every legislator on behalf of its members. And more legislators are landlords than tenants.

All of which raises questions about how strong the legislation that eventually emerges will actually be. The bill will almost certainly become law some time in the autumn (although the government has said it’ll take at least another six months before its provisions start to come into effect). But it’s far from clear those that loopholes will be closed.

 

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