Abolishing Section 21 is a great first step – but rental reform has only just begun

Houses, of the sort you will never own. Image: Getty.

Change is coming. Soon, private tenants in England will have the security they need to call their rented house a home. The UK government has announced plans to abolish “no fault” Section 21 evictions in England, meaning that landlords will no longer be able to evict tenants without a legitimate reason.

Nearly one in five households in England live in the private rented sector. At present, no fault evictions cause significant insecurity for tenants, as well as negative impacts on mental health and well-being. So an end to Section 21 will have a real, positive impact on millions of households, preventing them from being uprooted at short notice. It could also help to prevent homelessness, since the biggest single cause is the ending of a tenancy in the private sector.

As waiting lists for social housing grow, the private rented sector is accommodating more vulnerable and low-income households, as well as growing numbers of families with children. Yet research shows that insecure tenancies aren’t the only challenge facing private tenants. Poor quality and unaffordable housing remain key concerns, right across the UK.

A state of disrepair

The latest government statistics show that one in four privately rented houses in England did not meet the government’s own standards for decent homes. This means that around 1.1 million private renters are living in homes which contain dangerous hazards, are not in a reasonable state of repair, or lack suitable heating.

With Section 21 in place, tenants are vulnerable to “revenge evictions” if they complain about poor conditions in their homes. Citizens Advice found that tenants had a 46 per cent chance of being served a Section 21 notice if they complained to the local council about their landlord.

Ending Section 21 should give tenants more confidence to speak out against dangers, without the threat of losing their home. But this will depend on whether councils have the funding needed to enforce standards and compel landlords to carry out repairs.

Historically, enforcement has been a postcode lottery and landlords are rarely prosecuted. In the context of austerity, where local councils have seen spending cuts of up to 40 per cent since 2009-10, there’s little to indicate that more consistent enforcement will be possible.


Rent controls and reclamation

Tenants also face issues of affordability; particularly vulnerable, single parent families and low-income renters. This issue has worsened due to the housing benefit freeze, which has kept allowances at the same rate since 2016, while rents have continued to rise, meaning families are facing considerable hardships.

Even with the reforms to Section 21, it would still be possible for landlords to take advantage of affordability issues, and unreasonably increase the rent to force tenants out of their home. Appropriate safeguards must be in place to stop this from happening.

Rent stabilisation measures – like those in place across much of Europe – are one solution. These measures, which can restrict when rent can be increased, or by how much, are even supported by nine out of ten landlords in England and Wales.

Reforms need to be introduced carefully, to minimise any unintended consequences. For example, landlords might become more risk averse, which could lead to greater discrimination against tenants who claim benefits. Or, they could decide to let their property on Airbnb instead.

So the government’s proposed reforms to the court process and Section 8 are vital, to give landlords confidence that they can reclaim possession of their property quickly, for legitimate reasons. This will help to ensure that good landlords have the support needed to continue letting out safe and secure homes.

Learning from Scotland

Clearly, ending Section 21 is only the first step on a long path of reforms needed to modernise the private rented sector. But English lawmakers can look to Scotland for a good example of how to tackle all the different challenges facing the private rented sector in a joined-up way.

There, all new private tenancies since December 2017 are “private residential tenancies”. They are open-ended, meaning the tenant can remain in the property as long as they wish, unless the landlord uses one of the 18 grounds for eviction, such as wishing to sell the property. When this happens, the amount of notice required varies depending on how long the tenant has lived there and the grounds for eviction used.

Rent increases are restricted to once a year, and can be referred to a “rent officer” to adjudicate. Local authorities can also apply to the Scottish government to limit rent increases in specific areas.

Private tenants can take complaints to the new housing tribunal for free, without needing a solicitor to represent them. It is designed to be less adversarial than the court process. Among its many powers, the tribunal can serve a Repairing Standard Enforcement Order on landlords, which specifies work the landlord must undertake to ensure the property meets the “repairing standard”.

Though these reforms are still in their infancy, and by no means perfect, they show how security of tenure is only one element of a modernised sector. Other parts of the UK would do well to learn from the different approaches, all while collecting evidence on what works, sharing experiences and supporting tenants and landlords to understand their new rights and responsibilities.

Ending the “no fault” ground for eviction is vital for tenants to be able to put down roots, feel settled and make their private rented property a home. But reform can’t stop there.

The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University and Kim McKee, Senior Lecturer, Social Policy and Housing, University of Stirling.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.