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"No fault" evictions are spiking. Who's to blame?

Panic and greed fuel spike in tenants being evicted under the infamous "Section 21" - but the stage for the crisis has been set by decades of bad policy. 

March 02 2023, 14.06pm

Diane Smith, 58, had just gotten home from a long day of teaching when she heard the familiar ping of her email inbox. She was surprised to see the message was from her letting agent, notoriously hard to reach. It was bad news. Diane and her three children were being evicted under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, and she had four months to find somewhere to live.

Diane and her children, aged 20, 15 and 13, had moved into the newly built townhouse in Sheldon, Birmingham, in December 2019. It was ideal. “I absolutely loved living there,” she tells The Lead. “I kept it immaculate because of how nice it was – I’d never lived in a new build before.” It was the perfect place to spend lockdown in.  “It really made a difference to us, because we had a bit more room and we weren’t all on top of each other, plus we had a lovely garden where we could sit when the weather was nice,” she says. “Everything was hunky dory.”

That is, until, it wasn’t. A few months before she was told she was going to be evicted, in April 2022, Diane left her job as a special needs teacher to embark on a new role as a cover teacher, but the job fell through and she was forced to work for an agency while she found something more stable. Then came the email. “I was absolutely distraught,” she says . “I remember crying and having to tell the kids what was happening.” What followed was a nightmarish six month with the realistic prospect of homelessness never far away. 

Diane is just one of thousands facing eviction since the end of the pandemic, with many losing their homes for no fault of their own. Section 21 allows landlords to evict tenants for any reason, whether they want their house back to live in it or they want to find a higher paying tenant, so long as they give a minimum of two months notice. These types of evictions have exploded since the temporary ban on evictions was lifted post-pandemic, with Section 21 bailiff evictions more than doubling in a year. 

"When the rent climbs in an area, all the other landlords realise they can get more for their houses. Section 21 is a way of getting people out if they won't agree to a rent rise”

It’s worrying, not least because we’re in the midst of a rental crisis. At the moment, demand for private rental properties is vastly outstripping supply, causing rents to rise rapidly. In Birmingham, where Diane lives, monthly rents rose by 17.6% on average last year. In fact, more than a million private renters were hit with a rent hike last August alone. For many, finding a property, let alone an affordable one, is nigh on impossible. 

In the face of all this, Diane was terrified that she was going to lose her children, the oldest of whom has autism. “My worst fear was that they were going to have to go and move in with their dads,” she says. “I didn’t want that, and they didn't want to do that, but I thought that if the worst came to the worst, I wouldn't have liked to take my children to a hostel, I'd rather them go to their dad's house.” This, Diane says, is what kept her up at night. “It was an awful time,” she says. “I had really bad anxiety, I wasn't sleeping, it was just absolutely dreadful.”

Landlords’ panic and greed 

Between October and December 2022, Section 21 evictions increased sharply, according Ministry of Justice figures for England and Wales released last month. In the same period, bailiff evictions as a result of Section 21 proceedings jumped by 143% in a single year. There’s also been a jump in the number of court proceedings started by private landlords, which are up by 69%. And these are just the cases we know about: the real  numbers are likely to be even higher. According to the homeless charity Shelter, most renters move out before the end of the two-month notice period to avoid the eviction claim going to court, so court-related statistics are merely a small part of a bigger picture. 

Some of this can be put down to the backlog of court proceedings from the pandemic, when a temporary ban on evictions was put in place under the Coronavirus Act. At the time, landlords could serve eviction notices, but they couldn’t follow through with actually evicting tenants. However, while this backlog may account for some of the increase, the figures are still much higher than experts interviewed for this report by The Lead had expected. Court proceedings, for example, are up 47% on 2019 levels, before the eviction ban was put in place. 

“I know my landlord hand-delivered it, because it had no stamp. I just couldn’t believe he was doing it in the middle of winter, right before Christmas”

Spiralling rents are another part of the equation. “We're in the middle of an inflation crisis, and, because of this, landlords are getting told by estate agents that they can get more for [their] property,” explains Kate Bradley, a housing caseworker and campaigns officer at Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC). While some of this can also be put down to rising mortgage rates, Bradley suggests that many rent increases are the result of profiteering. “When the rent climbs in an area, all the other landlords realise they can get more for their houses,” she tells The Lead. “Section 21 is a way of getting people out if they won't agree to a rent rise.” 

And lastly, Bradley lists perhaps the most galling reason for the rise in evictions:  more and more  landlords are selling up and leaving the sector. “Small landlords are facing the right costs at the moment and are selling their properties, either to other investors or to people looking to get onto the property ladder,” she says. Between July and October last year, some 13% of private landlords decided to leave the rental market. While it is possible for a landlord to sell their home to another landlord with the tenants still in it, Bradley says “most landlords want the best price possible, so they kick the tenants out.” 

Hayley Dawson, 28, is one of the thousands driven out by arbitrary rent hikes. She’d been living with her partner in a flat in Bristol for five years , when her landlord decided to raise the rent by more than 20% last November. At the time, there were numerous repairs that needed doing, including an unusable shower, but Hayley and her partner wanted to make it work. It was home, after all. 

A week later, Hayley, who works as a learning support assistant as well as managing an events space, was enjoying her day off and trying to come up with ways to afford the higher rent when she heard the Section 21 notice drop through her letterbox. “I know my landlord hand-delivered it, because it had no stamp,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe he was doing it in the middle of winter, right before Christmas.”

With two months to get out of the flat and constant threats of court proceedings from her landlord, Hayley began experiencing anxiety attacks. Finding somewhere they could afford felt impossible. “It was really hard to find places in Bristol because the rent prices have just been shooting up,” she says. (Last year, Bristol rents climbed 12.3%.) On top of that, strict rules about children excluded her from a lot of properties. “I’d actually like to have kids one day, but about a third of the places we were looking at said no children,” she says.

Eventually, Hayley and her partner settled for a flat miles away from their support network and cost double the rent per month. “It’s really heartbreaking to be moving further away into paying twice as much,” she says. “I worry about money every day, I’m looking for another job because I’m just not earning enough, and I don’t know how to earn more without giving up more of my life.”

“Loads of people are in this really insecure, unstable sector, which is a long-term result of the decision not to build more social housing”

Diane faced similar hurdles. A precariously employed single mum, finding any property, let alone an affordable one, was beginning to feel impossible. Rent prices, she says, were “going up and up,” and Diane was looking at paying at least £100 to £200 more per month for a new house in the same area. Overall, Diane applied to view 22 private properties and was rejected from viewing all but eight due to her status as an agency worker. Over and over again, her applications were rejected for the same reason. 

The social housing route was no better: Diane got in touch with the council straight away, but her application wasn’t opened until three months later when, with 56 days until the end of her tenancy, she was put on the homeless register. It made little difference. A long waiting list and a lack of three bedroom social homes meant that Diane still wasn’t able to start bidding. The prospect of ending up in temporary accommodation, which could have been anywhere in the West Midlands, was becoming more realistic by the day. “We could have been put anywhere – a bed and breakfast, a hostel, a temporary flat – and I would have had to accept it or I wouldn’t be classed as homeless,” Diane recalls. 

Eventually, Diane found a house a mile down the road for just £50 more per month. She was initially rejected by the letting agency, but the landlord “took a chance” on Diane. With the help of the council, Diane was able to pay the deposit and first month’s rent, and moved her family into their new home in time for Christmas. After moving in, she quickly found out the real reason she’d been evicted wasn’t that her landlord was moving back into the property. Far from it: while browsing the rental properties in her area online, she came across her old home – and the rent had increased by 50%. “I’d been priced out of my area,” she says. 

Urgent intervention in a long-brewing

The spike in evictions isn’t just some post-pandemic, inflation-driven fluke. It’s the culmination of flawed policies wedged into Britain’s housing market years, even decades ago. “This is a long-term outcome of a long-term set of policies,” says Bradley. “Loads of people are in this really insecure, unstable sector, which is a long-term result of the decision not to build more social housing.” The current housing crisis dates all the way back to the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which allowed social tenants to buy their houses at a discounted rate, decimated the country’s social housing stock.

“We're in a crisis that requires immediate intervention. It's not enough to say we’ll tinker around the edges in a year's time”

To date, only a tiny fraction of the two million council homes sold under Right to Buy have been replaced, meanwhile, mortgages have become less and less affordable. Now, more people than ever are relying on private landlords, who, Bradley says, are most likely to serve Section 21s. “This is because Section 21s are only legal for Assured Shorthold Tenancies, which are rarely used by social housing landlords,” she explains.

For its part, a Labour source told The Lead,  if the party is elected they plan to ban no-fault evictions as part of a set of reforms for renters, including the right to request speedy repairs, a four-month notice period for landlords and a national register of landlords.

The government, meanwhile,  has been promising an end to no fault evictions since it proposed the Renters Reform Bill in its 2019 manifesto, but movement has been excruciatingly slow. “The bill has been on the back burner since it was promised in 2019,” Anny Cullum, research and policy lead at the tenants union Acorn, tells The Lead.

The Renters Reform Coalition, which is made up of a range of groups including Acorn, Shelter and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has been calling for the bill to be brought forward. The government has promised to introduce the Bill in parliament before May 2023 and, while this is a win, many campaigners don’t feel that it’s enough. 

“We're in a crisis that requires immediate intervention,” says Bradley. “It's not enough to say we’ll tinker around the edges in a year's time.” Campaigners are calling for emergency measures to be put in place, including a temporary ban on evictions and a rent freeze, or a rent cap, as is the case in Scotland

“During the pandemic, [the government] showed that they can take extraordinary action to prevent people from suffering severe hardship in an emergency, and we think the cost of living crisis has got the potential of damaging people's welfare to a really similar extent,” says Cullum. “So they should be taking emergency measures to make sure people are safe in their homes, and placing a ban on evictions until they can bring forward the bill.”

Bradley agrees, adding that any emergency measures must be complemented by urgent action on the Renters Reform Bill. “The problems won’t go away just because you’ve paused them,” she says. “If the government did do something like that, which I would really like them to do, they should be legislating, while that ban is in place, so that when we come out, we’re coming out to different laws and a different climate instead of just creating a fresh flood.”

Section 21, says Cullum, “is the biggest challenge facing renters in terms of security,” Not only does it plunge people into an increasingly fraught housing market and threaten them with homelessness, it also puts tenants on very uneven footing with their landlords. “We find that a lot of people are worried about challenging and unfair rent increases, or complaining about dangerous conditions in the home because they know how precarious they are,” she says. “So that’s driving down standards in the sector even further.”

As Hayley says, without reform, tenants like her will have to continue to rely on the potential “goodwill” of their landlords. It’s a common saying that most people are three wrong moves away from becoming homeless. For renters in Britain today, it’s not even them who calls the moves. 

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