Richard Brown: The Renters (Reform) Bill won’t solve all Londoners’ problems but it will help

Richard Brown: The Renters (Reform) Bill won’t solve all Londoners’ problems but it will help

The Renters (Reform) Bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons last week, should be particularly good news for Londoners. Twenty-nine per cent of households – just over one million – in the capital are private renters, compared to 17 per cent in the rest of England, so the measures in the Bill, including its centrepiece abolition of “no fault” evictions, will be welcomed by many.

The legislation has been a long time coming. The reforms were first announced by Theresa May in April 2019, towards the end of her government’s lifespan. Toby Lloyd, former Head of Policy at Shelter, had been recruited as the Prime Minister’s special advisor on housing the previous year, and he helped make the case for the reform.

“There was definitely interest in the problems in the private rental sector, both moral and electoral,” Lloyd says. “Morally, there were people at Number 10 who really cared about the ‘burning injustice’ of how the housing market operated, and electorally there was growing awareness of the difficulty the Conservatives had in attracting young people. And occasionally, when the clouds cleared on Brexit, the government was keen to advance social reforms, especially if they could also wrong-foot the Labour Party, who hadn’t declared their policies at that time.”

Four years and three prime ministers later, we have the Bill. One of its central measures will be ending “Section 21 evictions”, which allow landlords to terminate a tenancy for any reason after six months. These are currently one of the driving forces behind homelessness in London: just under half of the 5,850 households at risk of homelessness at the end of last year were in that position because of the end of an assured shorthold tenancy was approaching, and in more than half of these cases the tenancy was ending simply because the landlord wished to sell up or rent the property to someone else (presumably for a higher rent).

Under the reforms, landlords will still be able to end tenancies if they wish to live in their property or sell it, and will have enhanced rights to evict tenants who fall behind with their rent or display “anti-social behaviour”. Otherwise, tenancies will be open-ended, with landlords allowed to raise rents annually. To avoid “eviction by rent increase”, tenants will be able to challenge any proposed rent rises above “market value” at a tribunal. This provision always existed in theory, but the risk of arbitrary eviction made it toothless: landlords could simply use the Section 21 process to boot out any truculent tenants.

Taken together, these reforms begin to sound like a version of rent control, though Lloyd’s experience of selling the measures to sometimes sceptical Conservative ministers leads him to prefers the term “rent stabilisation”. They certainly falls short of what Sadiq Khan is calling for – a two-year rent freeze and a rent control commission to set rents thereafter (not least because market rents have begun to rise sharply in recent months after a period of slower growth). However, the Bill’s measures should act as a curb on the most egregious rent rises.

Not everyone is happy, however. Landlord representatives warn that the complexity of evicting tenants under the new rules may combine with a loss of tax breaks to push landlords to sell their properties. However, Toby Lloyd is sanguine: “Landlords have been saying this since I started to work in housing, but the truth is that the sector is still growing.”

And, if landlords did quit, would it matter? They would presumably sell their property, either to another landlord or to an owner-occupier. When I asked about this on Twitter recently, several respondents made the sensible point (Twitter isn’t what it used to be) that moving property from rental to owner-occupation might support a different market. One recalled, “when we sold our rental flat in Hackney, it went from being occupied by a young Bangladeshi family to a single white guy with a taste for modernist architecture.” And, she added, landlords might be more demanding in terms of references if they felt tenants would be harder to evict, which could “effectively bar a cohort of people on the financial margins.”

One solution, of course, would be to build more social housing, so that people at the margins had other options. But there are already different private rental models. Some professionalised “build-to-rent” landlords have endorsed the abolition of Section 21 evictions: Grainger, the UK’s largest listed landlord, welcomed the reforms, saying that “many of the proposals in the Bill align with Grainger’s business model.”

And maybe there is also room for what Lloyd, Rose Grayston and Neal Hudson called in a report published earlier this year an “ethical private rented sector” in which not-for-profit providers could buy property from smaller landlords who wanted to sell up, as community-based housing associations did in the 1960s.

The transition to the new system will inevitably be bumpy, leading to particular problems in specific cases (for example, for student rentals), and Londoners still need more homes and a better choice of affordable rental flats and houses. The Renters (Reform) Bill does not solve all of London’s housing problems, but remodelling the rental market to support responsible private landlords and squeeze out those whose behaviour is little short of criminal is a good start.

Twitter: Richard Brown and On London.

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Categories: Analysis

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