Ignore the prophets of doom: ending Section 21 is the right thing to do.

It is widely-reported that Thursday’s Queen’s Speech will include provision to abolish no-fault evictions in England by abolishing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988: which enable a landlord to evict a renter after giving just two months’ notice once the fixed term has expired, and without having to prove any fault by the tenant.

Predictably, this has led to the usual predictions of doom from landlords’ groups, claiming that scrapping no-fault evictions will lead to terrible unintended consequences for renters, and are based on myths and untruths. For example:

  • Section 21 doesn’t end a tenancy after 2 months. It takes months for court proceedings to take place and an eviction date to be set.
  • It’s not true that renters aren’t at fault when a S.21 notice is served. Landlords don’t want to get rid of a good tenant, so there’s always some fault on the renter’s part.
  • Scrapping S.21 will increase homelessness because landlords will sell up, leading to a shortage of homes to rent
  • Ending S.21 is an unjustifiable interference in landlords’ property rights.

Lets look at these in turn:

Section 21 doesn’t end a tenancy after 2 months

It’s true that, if a landlord has to follow his notice through with court proceedings, delays can amount to months. That leaves everyone in a legal limbo that’s good for neither landlord nor tenant. But that is true only for those cases where court action proves necessary: experience suggests that most renters leave when their notice expires: the number of actual court evictions is small compared with the number of renters. For the rest of us – which is most renters – receiving a s.21 notice really does mean losing your home with only a few weeks’ notice.

And it is this insecurity which is at the heart of the case against s.21. At any point, renters may find themselves having to find somewhere else to live, raising the money for a deposit and rent in advance, all with very short notice. Is is hard, if not impossible, to put down roots in a family home or community, when you may need to find somewhere new at any time – and moving may well mean finding new schools for your kids, too. There’s little incentive to invest in your family home if it might not be yours much longer.

And every renter knows that getting on the wrong side of your landlord – by asking for repairs, or challenging a rent increase – might lead to losing your home. If you’re a landlord it’s not necessary to treat your tenants like serfs – but if you want to, s.21 will make that possible. S.21 is at the heart of the asymmetric relationship between landlord and tenant.

And our justice system is broken for everyone: it takes similar amounts of time to bring disrepair proceedings against a landlord. The answer is to invest in public services properly, including the civil justice system, so they work for everyone.

The renter is always at fault when a s.21 notice is served. Landlords don’t want to evict a good tenant.

I can tell you from personal experience this simply isn’t true. My last landlord served me with a s.21 notice when I pressed him to fix multiple problems with our house, including chronic damp that left black mould on the walls and slug trails on the carpets and damaged our health and property. He served us notice on 24th October – I’ll leave it to you to work out when it expired. And before you ask, protection from revenge eviction in this country is wholly unfit for purpose and frequently fails to protect renters at all. Why fix the issues, when you can just kick your tenants out if they complain?

We saw in a previous post how a well-known landlord has a policy of serving notice on any tenant who dares to complain about a rent increase. And in a House of Commons debate last year Karen Buck MP quoted a landlord as saying:

We need to fight to protect section 21…2 months is plenty to find a new rental…although if a tenant has annoyed me I wait to pull the trigger in mid-November to screw up their Christmas

http://bit.ly/2S6lXjM

That may not be the attitude of the majority of landlords, but it is not an uncommon one, and renters are entitled to be protected from the minority of landlords who would abuse their power merely because their customers annoyed them.

Landlords’ protestations that they never serve a s.21 notice unless their tenant is at fault appears to be based in large part on a survey of landlords published by the Residential Landlords’ Association in 2014, in which the respondents overwhelmingly said that they only served notice where wrongdoing by their tenant merited it.

To misquote Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is a survey of landlords in which they are asked to self-report on why they’d evicted their tenants. You can bet that nobody replied that they’d carried out a revenge eviction, or served notice in order to ruin their tenants’ Christmas or because they found them vaguely annoying.

Even if it were true – which it isn’t – s.21 enables landlords to be judge and jury in their own case. There’s no need for them to prove that the tenant really is at fault, nor any provision for the tenant to be able defend themselves against accusations that they’ve breached the terms of their tenancy. In almost every other instance we recognise that procedural fairness and the rule of law demand that people accused of wrongdoing that might lead to serious consequences are entitled to have that accusation put to them, to be able to answer that accusation and ultimately to have a court determine it. There’s no reason why losing your home should be any different.

Let’s imagine a counterfactual. Suppose it were a provision of landlord licensing schemes that local authorities could revoke landlords’ licences by giving two months notice, without having to prove that the conditions of that licence had been breached, and without any provision for an appeal. Doubtless councils would assure landlords that there really was a breach every time, perhaps carrying out a survey of themselves to prove it. Would landlords’ groups think this fair? No? Then why expect your customers to put up with the same?

Scrapping s.21 will increase homelessness.

It is suggested that landlords will either sell up, leaving the market completely, or move into short-term lettings, both of which will increase homelessness by reducing supply. Alternatively, they will become more selective about their tenants, rejecting those on benefits, leading to those becoming homeless.

We can dispose of the first of these in short order. Houses don’t disappear in a puff of smoke if a landlord sells up. Either they’re sold to another landlord, or they go to a first time buyer either directly or as part of a chain. In the latter case supply is reduced, but so is demand. Given that the current Government’s professed policy is to increase home-ownership, complaining that a policy will lead to more homes available seems exceptionally poor politics.

It’s far from clear that there’s unlimited demand for short-term lets in every area, but reforming s.21 has to be part of a wider reform of the private rented sector. If this is shown to be significant loss of supply then proper regulatory reform, including through the planning system, can be used to deal with it.

Similarly, experience shows that landlords are already highly selective about their tenants and renters on benefits already experience significant discrimination. Perhaps there’s an unlimited supply of perfect prospective renters, but if that were so landlords would already be favouring them. Again, we need to deal with DSS discrimination as part of wider reforms.

The end of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy is already a leading cause of homelessness. It is a remarkable proposition that making it harder to put people out on the street will increase homelessness. If it looks like scaremongering, that’s because it is.

Ending s.21 is an interference in landlords’ property rights

This is a Larry Sweeney special which it is impossible to ignore:

Section 21 is part of a statutory scheme of regulation set up by Parliament and which Parliament is perfectly entitled to reform. It’s Parliament’s job to balance competing rights and interests – in this instance, a landlord’s property rights against his tenant’s right to a safe, secure and habitable place to live and bring up their family. Landlords only have rights under s.21 because Parliament chose to give them: and what Parliament has given, Parliament can take away.

To descend into legal pedantry for a moment, a tenancy is an estate in land, the property of the tenant. Landlord and tenant both own estates in the property, freehold and leasehold respectively. S.21 already interferes in someone’s property rights.

Incidentally, using the same tweet to complain about interference in property rights and to demand that a charity (a private company limited by guarantee) be abolished and its private property seized is a joy to behold.

Let’s be clear. In the relationship between landlord and renter, renters are consumers purchasing a service from a business. Like every other consumer, we’re entitled to expect the state to impose effective consumer protection: and that’s particularly true where there’s a significant imbalance of power between businesses and consumers.

Of course landlords don’t want s.21 scrapped. No businessperson wants more regulation, and every reform of consumer protection has been greeted by hand-wringing from businesses explaining that, sadly, consumers would suffer.

No, landlords have abused the power handed to them by Section 21 for far too long. Ending it is a necessary and proportionate step, essential to help renters to have a secure home to bring up their families and put down roots in local communities.

And no amount of special pleading by landlords will change that.

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