The COVID evictions ban is ending – and renters face an uncertain future
Two years after the government first promised to abolish Section 21 'no-fault' evictions, tenants must wait some more
In less than a week, the COVID evictions ban in England will end, opening the doors to bailiff enforcement and setting the stage for a likely surge in court action by landlords seeking to oust their tenants.
Many of these evictions will be under Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 – so-called ‘no fault’ evictions – despite the fact the government first committed to abolishing Section 21 evictions more than two years ago.
Then-housing secretary James Brokenshire announced the plans would stop private landlords from simply evicting tenants at the end of a fixed-term tenancy contract ‘without good reason’, effectively creating open-ended tenancies, in the words of the government.
“Today we’re acting by preventing these unfair evictions,” declared prime minister Theresa May – it was that long ago. “Landlords will still be able to end tenancies where they have legitimate reasons to do so, but they will no longer be able to unexpectedly evict families with only eight weeks’ notice.
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“This important step will not only protect tenants from unethical behaviour, but also give them the long-term certainty and the peace of mind they deserve.”
Two years of waiting have passed, and now tenants must wait some more. This month’s Queen’s Speech revealed that the long-awaited proposals to scrap Section 21 would have to wait for a white paper in the autumn, after which there will then be a consultation period, followed by the legislative process and then, finally, an actual ban – assuming the government doesn’t get cold feet along the way.
The pandemic evictions ban isn’t watertight. It has been loosened over time so that tenants who have built up six months’ worth of arrears, even during the pandemic – a time during which people have been made unemployed, only to find their rent isn’t covered by benefits – can be evicted. In the last three months of 2020, more than 2,000 possession orders were made against tenants, which can take effect once the evictions ban ends.
The reaction to the Queen’s Speech from housing campaigners has been guarded but positive. “While the government’s intentions are positive, renters have already been waiting for tenancy reforms for two years,” said Baroness Alicia Kennedy, director of Generation Rent. “The government rightly wants to learn the lessons of the pandemic but must use the months ahead to make sure that the private rental market is suitable for all the people who now depend on it.”
Abolition of Section 21, if and when it does finally happen, is unlikely to be the whole story
Or this from the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter, who tweeted: “The Queen’s Speech means we're one step closer to ensuring every private renter can have a decent place to call home, thanks to a promise for a Renter's Reform Bill. We're ready to work with the government to scrap Section 21 'no fault' evictions and introduce a landlord register.”
The government signalled its consideration of a landlord register in the Queen’s Speech, but things are at an early stage – “explore the merits”, in the government’s parlance, which given the foot-dragging over Section 21 implies action is years away.
And abolition of Section 21, if and when it does finally happen, is unlikely to be the whole story. Landlord bodies and letting agents have been pushing for a beefed-up Section 8 eviction process, as a counterweight to abolishing Section 21.
Section 8 evictions can be used at any point in a tenancy, and include a number of ‘mandatory’ grounds, such as significant rent arrears, that allow the judge no discretion – if the facts are established, the landlord must be allowed to repossess the property, by bailiff if necessary.
In its response to the previous government consultation on scrapping Section 21 – yes, there’s already been one consultation – The Lettings Industry Council (TLIC) called for a widening of the grounds for mandatory eviction under Section 8 by adding the landlord’s desire to sell the property – which is, according to TLIC, the only one of the five main reasons for Section 21 evictions that isn't already in Section 8. This would make a mockery of Section 21 abolition – simply transferring the most common grounds for eviction to another route.
TLIC’s other proposals for Section 8 included allowing landlords to evict tenants under Section 8 if they want to retake possession of their property to house a family member; stopping tenants from avoiding eviction by paying rent arrears just before an oral hearing; and, most brazenly of all, calling for a new 'no fault' eviction route to be added to Section 8 with four to seven months' notice.
Abolishing Section 21 without reinforcing Section 8 will lead to a flood of landlords exiting the market, turfing out tenants in the process, claimed TLIC.
According to industry publication Letting Agent Today, the government will legislate to both abolish Section 21 and ‘strengthen’ Section 8.
And that still leaves perhaps the biggest issue of all – the rent arrears that have piled up during the pandemic, with Citizens Advice warning in January that half a million private renters were in arrears.
Scrapping no-fault evictions is little use to tenants who can’t clear their rent debt – arrears will still be grounds for eviction no matter what happens to Section 21. While some will benefit from the recently introduced ‘breathing space’ measures for those faced with problem debts, plenty will find they simply have no way of repaying what may be thousands of pounds of arrears. Debt forgiveness is light years away from the government’s agenda.
Their eviction notices will arrive long before Section 21 departs.
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