Stella Baker: to protect London’s private renters it’s time to scrap Section 21

Stella Baker: to protect London’s private renters it’s time to scrap Section 21

Three years ago, my family and I were made homeless by a little-known piece of housing legislation known as “Section 21”. My story, one familiar to many other London renters, shows that Section 21 needs to go if our capital’s growing army of renters are to truly able to feel at home in the places they rent.

So, my story. My flat in a large block in south London seemed like a reasonable deal when we first moved in, but we quickly realised the place was in total disrepair: there were faulty electrics, broken drains, rats, mice and cockroaches and there was scaffolding outside for years. Our home became a living nightmare. I complained several times to the landlord and to the local council, and after several stressful months of battling to get them to take the problems seriously, the landlord did some of the repairs needed.

And then he evicted us.

There is no doubt in my mind that the landlord kicked us out to make an example of us to scare his other tenants from complaining about the horrendous conditions in the block. I was outraged that this could happen and tried to fight it. But, to my horror, it turned out there was nothing I could do.

And that’s because that piece of legislation, Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, allows landlords to evict tenants at the end of their fixed term contract (almost always six or twelve months) without even having to give a reason. While there is legislation designed to prevent “revenge evictions” like the one I experienced, it relies on a council’s capacity to investigate complaints, carry out inspections and serve improvement notices to be effective.

All of these are things that have been undermined by decades of cuts to local government funds. As The Times revealed recently, such action by councils is very rare leaving too many tenants at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. And it isn’t just about poor repairs and maintenance, it also provides a route for landlords who want to ramp up the rent to evict someone in favour of some else who is willing or able to pay more, meaning it’s hard for many people to challenge exorbitant rent increases in a city where homes are in short supply.

The UK is very much an outlier in having legislation of this kind. In many other European countries, renters can stay as long as they want to as long as they are keeping up with their rent payments and not breaching the terms of their leases. That’s how it used to work in Britain too, until the Thatcher government’s 1988 Act.

Very few renters have even heard of Section 21, but there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s behind many of the housing problems London is grappling with. And many of our city’s three million private tenants are all too aware of its consequences. The cost of private renting in the capital is very high, with the average private rent now running to £2,000 a month according to some figures. However, equally important but far less well known about, many private renters live in properties that are in poor condition despite these huge costs.

As my experience shows, Section 21 is a major driver for these unacceptable costs and conditions. Put simply, the threat of being evicted makes many renters scared to complain about disrepair, big rent increases, or other problems such as infestations or anti-social behaviour. 

Section 21 is also one of the major causes of runaway rents and house prices. As landlord lobbying organisations boast, the introduction of Section 21 30 years ago 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. Londoners have been hit particularly hard by Section 21. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that two thirds of Section 21 evictions issued in England and Wales in 2016 were in London – an alarming statistic that the Foundation puts down to a combination of high rents and the benefit cuts brought in from 2010.

The good news is that renters are getting organised and becoming more powerful politically. Research from Shelter has shown how private renters swung disproportionately to Labour in the 2017 election, costing the incumbent Conservative government dozens of seats, including several – such as Croydon Central and Battersea – in London. Alongside these organic movements, the newly formed London Renters Union has, like ACORN outside the capital, recruited hundreds of renters by offering them collective defence against bad landlords, disrepair and eviction, while also pushing for changes to transform the housing system in favour of people, not profit. Along with Generation Rent, they have identified scrapping Section 21 as their key priority. The government’s consultation on ways to improve renter security has provided an opportunity to push for it.

The Scrap Section 21 campaign has had some real successes already: nearly 50,000 people have signed a petition and dozens of renters have used the campaign’s template to tell the government their experiences and views on the need for renter security. A range of national organisations from across the political spectrum – including the Resolution Foundation and The Times – have come out in support. But perhaps the biggest political victory of the campaign to date came in London in July, when the London Assembly backed a motion put forward by Green Party AM Sian Berry and Labour AM Tom Copley, urging the Mayor to support our campaign.   

It would make such a huge difference to London’s renters if Section 21 was scrapped. Other people wouldn’t have to face the kind of ordeal I experienced, simply for standing up for my rights. Landlords wouldn’t be able to hike the rents to force us out. And London’s private renters, which include families and older people, could make real plans, and feel secure in their homes. Renters are beginning to reshape the landscape of power on this issue. We think, hope, that this is a fight we can win. 

For more information about the Scrap Section 21 campaign contact Jacob Mukherjee, Campaigns officer at jacob@generationrent.org. For more information about what to do if you receive at Section 21 notice, try Citizens Advice or Shelter. Stella Baker is a pen name.

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