Opinion

As Tories flip-flop on no-fault evictions, renters are left counting the cost of years of insecurity

If capitalism praises risk then why is it that when things get risky, landlords want to obtain guarantees and pass the risk on to renters?

Protesters with coloured placards

Campaigners outside parliament to protest amendments to the Renters Reform Bill, 23 October 2023. Image: Zuma Press Inc./Alamy

At last the government has finally, eventually, completely, firmly, listened to the pleadings of private landlords to stop the repeal of Section 21 in its tracks – dressing this up as a postponement in the Renters Reform Bill. Since 2019, when it first entered the magical world of the Conservative Manifesto, the removal of people from their homes under the ‘no-fault evictions’ Section 21 (of the Landlord and Tenant Act) was seen as the iniquitous outcome of a piece of legislation that allowed landlords to dismantle the security of family life on a whim. Government ministers spoke about the power of Section 21 to completely screw any sense of security for tenants in the world of renting. 

Yet now, possibly because there are many, many Tory MPs who are private landlords, and because of the lobbying of various private landlord ‘trade unions’ – badgering for a better deal for their members and fuck the tenant – the government has decided to shelve, postpone, dump, ‘await a more suitable time for’ – in short, to drop the removal of Section 21. 

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It has been a long and slow and but at times promising road since those early pledges by Tories – seemingly – to stand up for the tenant against the landlord and pronounce that Section 21 is wrong. But finally they have settled for the usual support they give to those that aspire to own their own property. And build up a prosperous portfolio, or sometimes just enough to give them a steady income in retirement. 

The Sunday Times business section runs a weekly column where they ask known individuals about their money. And one of the questions they ask is, is it better to have a pension or property? Most go for property. Until Liz Truss’s incendiarist actions that nearly screwed the economy big time, property had looked the rosier choice. 

Since Truss’s regime landlords have seen their mortgages go up significantly (most landlords acquire their properties through ‘buy to let’ mortgages). So they want to pass that increase on to renters. And that often means moving people on quickly so that new tenants will pay a higher rent. 

The ability to use a Section 21 ‘no fault eviction’ is a boon to landlords facing higher costs. The problem is, it is hard for the tenant who has to shoulder the burden of higher costs, a burden that many landlords do not want to absorb. 

Property ownership is seen as the best method of getting some security around you and your children. It is often the only method. Where else in the good days before the recent meltdown could you borrow 90% of the value of a property from the banks, install tenants who pick up all your costs, and pay your mortgage? And see not only the mortgage paid by a third party, servicing your loan, but see the value of your property go up, often astronomically? 

What a joyful ascent into something looking like prosperity. All you have to do is find the lender, find the person to pay the loan off for you, to service your risk in an upward-moving market and you’re quids in. 

So, often using another individual’s money, not your own but the tenant’s, you can gradually become richer. And the greater irony is that on many occasions the rents are paid for by the taxpayer because the renter is on tax credits or social security. Putting your toe into property ownership ­– most landlords are small players owning only one or two properties – brings that brighter future for your family.   

So you take the risk of getting the property in the first instance, and a once-surefire system of upwardly increasing property values lifted you financially. The risk you took is rewarded and has been rewarded so far. Even with the hike in mortgage costs, property prices remain in most cases way above the level the property was bought at. 

If capitalism praises risk then why is it that when things get risky, landlords want to obtain guarantees and pass the risk on to renters? I am sure the lobbyists in defence of the private landlord will have stories of people unable to do any more than pass on the costs or sink into a sea of debt. But wasn’t this a risky game in the first place? Did landlords not gather all of the emoluments thrown up by the rising value of property? Could they not get tenants to service their loans and then later sell their property with all gains passed to them? 

The wealth created within most private landlording has been created by renters and tenants, not by landlords. It has been created by those servicing the loans. And as we have seen, often that is the public purse paying rent through universal credit to private landlords to buttress their personal wealth. 

Why is there not equity for the tenant in the tenant-landlord equation? Why is it that Section 21 will protect property owners but put tenants and renters on the back foot, unsure of their own future? Making families and individuals unsure of their futures while landlords buttress their futures? 

Why did the Conservative government promise the earth but delivered not even a flowerpot? The wretched uncertainty as to whether or not your landlord has designs on your home and has the statutory power to whip it away from under you, hurts deeply.  

Maybe, recognising who it is that makes the landlord richer, we should take part of the rise in value of a property and share it with the renters who have made it all possible. Now that would be worth fighting for. 

Leaving Section 21 ‘no-fault evictions’ on the statute books shows the Tories realising they have to stick with their own.    

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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