Renting Is Broken. Can It Be Fixed?

Rents are extortionate, tenants can be evicted for no reason and the pandemic has only made it worse. Meet the people who aim to stop the renting crisis.
May 10, 2021, 1:31pm
Renting Is Broken. Can It Be Fixed?
A housing activist stands outside a barricade at the Sweets Way housing estate in London in 2015. Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

Fran had rented her flat for 10 years. It was a small one-bed flat in a sleepy coastal town, and the rent was cheap. All was well until her landlord decided to sell off the block of flats to a new owner, which is when the trouble started. Issues that had previously been fixed now went unsolved – windows hanging out of frames, leaks in the ceiling. Annoyed and desperate for help with the increasingly dangerous state of the flat, she reached out to the council, who contacted the new landlord. 

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That’s when she was served something called a Section 21 eviction, or a no-fault eviction, which allows landlords to evict tenants for no reason. 

“The first thing I thought when I got it was, ‘this can’t be legal,’” says Fran, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, fearing potential repercussions for speaking out on this subject from her new landlord. “After speaking to a lawyer, I found out there's nothing you can do – you can't fight it.”

Fran, 44, has now left that town on the southeast coast of England, living in fear of being displaced once again for daring to ask for basic repairs: “Every day I think about it. Every day when I go and get my post,” says Fran. “It's terrifying.”

This is exactly the type of Kafkaesque situation housing campaigners were finally hoping to make a thing of the past when in December 2019, the UK government finally announced it would ban Section 21 evictions as part of a proposed new law it was calling the “Renters’ Reform Bill”. 

A protester takes part in a demo dubbed "The March for Homes" in London in January 2015. Photo: USTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

A protester takes part in a demo dubbed "The March for Homes" in London in January 2015. Photo: USTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

For years, the UK’s housing sector has been getting increasingly out of hand. No one quite anticipated how large the renting sector would become. Currently, around 13 million people rent in the UK, equivalent to 1 in 5 and twice the amount it was in the year 2000. But despite huge numbers of people across society who would like to see renting improve – young people, single-parent families, immigrants – rental reform has been almost non-existent, and those who hold the power to make changes are often property owners and landlords themselves, who arguably have a vested interest in not seeing the number of houses in the UK increase and lower the value of their properties. It is estimated that 27 percent of Conservative MPs are landlords collecting over £10,000 in rent a year – landlords who collect below £10,000 in rent annually don’t have to declare it.

And then, coronavirus hit. The government announced the bill would have to be delayed until the ambiguous period of “after the pandemic.” Housing ministers assured renters that they were still committed to “improv[ing] security for tenants” and banning no-fault evictions, but campaigners were worried. Suddenly, a law that was going to change the lives of thousands of private renters in the country vanished, at the exact time when renters were about to face an even harder challenge.

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This is where the Renters Reform Coalition comes in. The coalition, launched in November 2020 – almost a year from when the bill was first announced – is made up of charities, campaign groups, think tanks and renters unions. It aims to force the government to stand by its word to implement the Renters’ Reform Bill, by ensuring the bill delivers the most radical change to renting policy in decades.

“There were lots of organisations that were collectively very concerned about the impact of the bill not being brought forward,” Siobhan Donnachie, coalition manager of the Renters Reform Coalition says, “and particularly because of the [pandemic] entrenching issues within the private rented sector and obviously, the looming eviction crisis increasing homelessness.”

“Our main objectives are to make sure that the Renter's Reform Bill actually delivers the biggest tenants reform for the private rented sector in England in a generation,” said Donnachie, “because the last time the there was kind of any tenancy reform was back in 1988 under the Housing Act, which deregulated private rented housing.”

Photo: Andrea Baldo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Photo: Andrea Baldo/LightRocket via Getty Images

The aims of the coalition are clear. First and foremost, it wants to abolish no-fault evictions and ensure that tenants can’t be evicted through other means such as a steep hike in the rent (Since December 2019, when the government pledged to ban this type of eviction, Generation Rent estimates 700,000 have taken place. If served legally, they cannot be challenged in court). It also wants open-ended tenancies, and for the government to intervene to reduce rents, which often exceeds a third of a tenant's monthly income. The coalition wants the bill to address discrimination within the housing sector, ensuring that immigration checks or excluding welfare claimants from applying for tenancies are banned. Finally, the coalition is calling for a national register of the 4.5 million private landlords in order to ensure repercussions for the otherwise unregistered and unregulated landlords if they rent unsafe homes

“Our main focus is that Section 21, no-fault evictions are abolished because they're the leading cause of homelessness, so that's really paramount.” Rachel Casey, policy and partnerships officer at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says, one of the members of the coalition. “We'd also like to see tenancies being open-ended, which will provide the greatest stability for people and flexibility as well.”

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With all these issues affecting millions of people, why has it taken so long to address?

“The private rented sector has grown so dramatically,” says Donnachie. “It's the second biggest form of my tenure in the UK. Now, I don't think it was ever predicted to kind of grow that big. And obviously, because of the reduction in social housing, a lot of people that would have relied on that as a form of housing no longer have access to that.” 

“Ultimately, we have this failure to build more homes, and we've been failing to build homes for 40, 50 years,” Anya Martin, director of Priced Out,

another member of the coalition says. “And that is a huge political problem. Because we are still in a country where the majority of people are homeowners, and they don't like it when more homes are built near them that brings down the value of their own home. So it's quite a difficult political issue for any government to solve, which is probably why it's been ignored until it gets worse and worse and worse.”

The Renters Reform Coalition itself is broad due to the fact the renting sector has grown to affect a myriad of demographics. It contains 20 organisations, including Safer Renting, a smaller group involved in the coalition, focusing on providing a tenancy relation service for local authorities across London. 

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“I was aware that there was a housing crisis and I was aware that there were long term, systemic issues in the private rented sector, but it wasn't really until I started working at safe Renting that I realised quite how vulnerable private renters are, particularly in big cities like London,” Molly Delaney, caseworker and policy officer at Safer Renting says. “I had a tenant who complained to his landlord about disrepair at the property. At that point, [the landlord] began threatening the tenant saying he needed to move out – there was no notice given or anything like that. And then eventually, the landlord turned up with a crowbar and broke down the tenant store and forcibly removed him from the property, actually put them in the back of a van and, and forcibly, illegally evicted him.”

“It was shocking to see how often that happens to people living in what we at Safer Renting call the ‘shadow private rented sector’,” she adds, “the section of the rented sector, where there's a lot of low wage workers, young people, people on zero-hours contracts, who get stuck in this section of the private rented market, and then ended up just being taken advantage of.”

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Sue James, chair of the Renters Reform Coalition, and Molley Delaney, policy officer at Safer Renting. Photos: Supplied

Despite the issues affecting so many people, and the increased disregard for renters during the pandemic, no one quite knows when the bill will get passed. A draft is yet to be published, which means until then, the coalition doesn’t know what will make it in or what may be left out. It’s possible that it could appear in the Queen’s Speech – a speech made by the Queen setting out the Government’s agenda – on May 12th, or in September, or neither. 

VICE World News reached out to Thangam Debbonaire, who was at the time shadow Housing Secretary – she has since been replaced by Lucy Powell. Debbonaire said pressure is being applied – even though a date for the bill is unclear.

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“Renters have been badly let down by this government, which has so far failed to bring forward the promised Renters' Reform Bill, or to end Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions,” she said. “We desperately need to redress the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants.”

“As it stands, unregulated landlords too often make life miserable for their tenants,” he continued. “Recent research from Shelter showed that more than a third of private renters are forced to live in unsafe conditions, because they are afraid of being evicted if they complain,” added Debbonaire. We will be pushing the government to bring the legislation forward urgently.”

Although an inevitable delay as the result of a global, unprecedented pandemic might seem reasonable, the additional wait is only adding to the difficulties facing renters – from unsafe housing to no-fault evictions, and unimaginable rent costs trapping people in poverty. 

“I think the delay is unfortunate,” says Delaney. “But, you know, it would be unfair to say this was the only thing that had been delayed during the pandemic.”

“With the opportunity to have such a wide-ranging bit of legislation that could have a knock-on impact for private renters for years and years to come and have the potential to change the whole environment of private renting,” she adds, “It's probably worth the wait.”