In England, one in every 206 people is homeless. This figure is only likely to increase in the coming months with the end of the pandemic eviction ban, rising costs of living, and cuts to Universal Credit.
The government’s 2019 proposal to ban Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions in England is a positive step that will tackle a leading cause of homelessness—but we need to see more concrete details of this proposal and other reforms to the private rental sector to ensure that tenants are given greater security and stability.
Here’s what to bear in mind when the government reveals more details of its plans in a White Paper expected later this year.
Why do we need a ban on ‘no fault’ evictions?
Under Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, landlords can issue a ‘no-fault’ eviction to their tenants at any time after the end of a fixed period of tenancy, without needing to give a reason. The notice allows tenants two months to leave before the landlord progresses the eviction to the courts. NPC research pre-covid shows that eviction from private tenancies is a key driver of homelessness, accounting for 78% of the rise in homelessness between 2011 and 2017.
During the pandemic, legislation temporarily banning evictions by bailiffs was introduced, but this expired on 31 May 2021. In regard to Section 21, the notice period was initially extended from two months to six months, then reduced to four months from 1 June 2021, and it returned to only two months on 30 September 2021. These temporary measures acted like a dam and lifting them has led to a sudden bursting of banks. Concerningly, landlords have rushed to evict their tenants, carrying thousands of households towards homelessness.
When the ban on bailiff-enforced evictions came to an end, around 5% of all renters had already been served an eviction notice or been told they may be evicted. Between July and September 2021, there was a 59.7% increase in households threatened with homelessness via Section 21 compared to the same quarter in 2020. Plus, these figures don’t include tenants evicted by Section 8 notices, which can be served to people in rent arrears.
Whilst there may be valid reasons for a landlord seeking to end a tenancy, there are concerns this legal route is being used to unfairly evict some tenants. And the threat of Section 21 hanging over tenants can prevent them from raising concerns and this leads to tenants living in sub-standard living conditions. At present, 30% of private rented housing fails to meet the current Decent Homes standard.
Who is most affected?
I received two Section 21 evictions in 2021. The constant stress of being on the move, not feeling fully settled, and dealing with the threat of possible court action is a profoundly destabilising experience—even as someone with a reliable source of income and support networks to fall back on.
During my second eviction process in October-December 2021, I was able to navigate the Section 21 process by accessing online tools and personal support from Shelter, Citizens Advice, my local council and my local branch of the tenants’ union Acorn. I discovered that while tenants aren’t legally obliged to leave their homes at the expiry of the two-month notice period if they haven’t found anywhere to live, this can result in legal fees, (illegal) harassment from landlords, and eventual eviction by bailiffs with two weeks’ notice.
In January, I was eventually able to negotiate a three-month extension to my lease and avoid being evicted by the courts; although this means I still need to leave my home, it has afforded me a luxury of timing and certainty that most in my position don’t get. My Acorn tenant support group was full of others who were being threatened with eviction by Christmas 2021, after the notice period returned to two months in October. Many reported stories of landlords failing to follow proper legal procedures, families with children who feared being made homeless, and difficulties securing new tenancies for those not on permanent job contracts.
We already know that the most disadvantaged in society are the most at risk of homelessness: NPC’s research shows that poverty accounts for 25-50% of the factors that lead to someone experiencing homelessness as an adult. This means certain groups, such as young people, single parents and people from ethnic minority communities, are more at-risk of homelessness. Our recent systems map looking at factors leading to reoffending in the criminal justice system also highlights the link between those who have been in prison and those who have experienced homelessness, and our work with Fulfilling Lives Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham shows the links between homelessness and other challenges such as substance use.
Since 2019, the government has been promising to abolish Section 21 as part of its Renters’ Reform Bill—a move celebrated by everyone working in the housing and homelessness sectors, but it is a promise on which the government has been slow to act. However, the Levelling Up White Paper announced that in Spring 2022, the government will publish a White Paper detailing its plans to support those in the private rented sector, including banning Section 21 evictions. It looks like we are edging closer to taking this important step.
What else has the government committed to?
As well as setting out a proposed ban on Section 21 evictions, the upcoming White Paper will explore other changes to the private rental sector, including ‘proposals for new minimum standards for rented homes, introducing a National Landlord Register and taking tough action against rogue landlords’. These changes would bolster the positive impact of a Section 21 ban, although the government has not yet shared details on exactly how it would implement these policies.
The government has also suggested it will reform current legislation for Section 8 evictions by widening the grounds for repossession—potentially watering down the positive impact of a Section 21 ban. This could see tenants struggling with benefit delays or with rent arrears due to covid-related job losses still being evicted through no fault of their own.
An eviction ban is a great start—but we need more than this
We need to hold the government to account on Section 8 reform, to avoid ‘no-fault’ evictions continuing in all but name. New legislation should follow Scotland in creating specific, strict criteria for the possession of a property. This will ensure that we close potential loopholes and make sure renters are offered a fair deal.
The private rental sector has doubled to 13 million people in the last 20 years. Rising housing costs, lack of savings and low-paid and insecure job contracts make it impossible for many people to become homeowners, even if they want to leave the rental market behind.
While banning Section 21 evictions is a great start, we need to see further change if we are to really reform renting and tackle the drivers of homelessness. Otherwise, we will continue to see the most disadvantaged bearing the brunt of our outdated system.