Could a housing court fix the UK’s rental woes?

The Royal Courts of Justice, London

Last month a group of tenants in Leeds got an opportunity to do something that most UK renters will never be able to do, and something that they probably wouldn’t rush to do either: they stood in a line in front of the courthouse and posed for a photo opp.

In a housing system fundamentally stacked against renters, the group was celebrating a rare victory, successfully lodging a rent repayment order against their unlicensed landlord. As unpleasant as legal proceedings might be, even reaching the steps of the courthouse is uncommon for most renters looking to address a housing case.

With news last week that the government plans to remove Section 21, the housing clause that allows for no-fault evictions, it’s worth asking whether we’ll see more court cases. Increasingly there are signs that a specialised housing court could be the government’s next course of action. Communities Secretary James Brokenshire has registered interest in the policy, and the government finished a major consultation on the matter back in January.

While various renters associations and landlord groups have expressed support for a housing court, a debate is unfolding about whether a court-based approach is the right solution – or merely a way of dealing with a poor regulatory system.

The background here is the decades-long growth of the UK’s private rental sector. The sale of council homes and the failure to build adequate state-subsidised housing, coupled with a decline in home ownership, have diminished the housing supply and stacked power in favour of landlords.

“Everyone is one bad interaction with their landlord away from an eviction”, says Georgie Laming of Generation Rent, who estimates that there are 240 evictions each week in the UK. For Laming, Section 21 exacerbated the already precarious state of the private rental sector, inhibiting both legal enforcement and dispute resolution. And behind closed doors, they explain, landlords have begun thinking about housing courts as a viable replacement to Section 21, or at least the best alternative they can hope for.

The Residential Landlord Association (RLA) is one  landlord group in favour of the move. “The current situation isn’t working very well, for anybody. It’s slow. Housing generally is quite a specialist subject and judges don’t have the right expertise,” RLA policy director David Smith tells me.

The benefits of a housing court are fairly clear-cut: efficient case processing (right now housing cases get lumped in with criminal and civil cases), and a unified complaint process.

“There isn't a set route for tenants and that can make the process more difficult, trying to figure out what route to take, which measures are necessary, which measures might be a bit too much,” explains Nabeela Mowlana, a representative from the tenants union Acorn. Taking housing issues to court under the current system incurs legal costs that tend to dissuade tenants.

Under the current system, if a tenant wants to lodge a complaint against a landlord they go to their local council. But local cuts have dramatically reduced councils’ capacity to bring action against landlords. “Most local authorities don’t even have tenancy relations officers" says Laming.

But for some, council cuts are only part of the problem. The structure of a complaint system means that the work of going after landlords is offloaded onto tenants, says Julie Rugg, a professor at York University.

“At present, a property can essentially be let in any condition, and the onus is on the tenant to complain about those conditions,” says Rugg, who has been pushing for a different solution: a so-called “property MOT” that would mean starting enforcement proceedings before tenants even move in.

“Properties would be assessed annually, and the inspections would be made by a qualified and accredited professional independent of the landlord or the tenant,” explains Rugg. That would mean a private, market-based solution for confronting bad landlords.

A specialised court system would still mean the onus would be on tenants to pursue enforcement issues. While Generation Rent and the RLA are advocating for changes in enforcement alongside a centralised housing court, critics of a court-based solution say that it will perpetuate the current inequalities.

“We think that housing courts [are] a red herring,” says Joe Lane, principal policy manager at the group Citizens Advice. For Lane, the problem is an uneven balance of power between tenants and landlords. “You don’t want to go to court every time [there’s a complaint],” says Lane, who advocates for a public enforcement body and a mandatory redress scheme on behalf of Citizens Advice.

What’s still missing is a system with the teeth to protect tenants. In part, this comes down to law: property laws tend to be much more effective at protecting property owners than they are at protecting those who don’t own property, and instead need to rent.

Jacky Peacock OBE, director of Advice4Renters, wants to see landlords register as a business. For Peacock the current model of enforcement is too focused on dealing with landlords and buildings, and rarely considers the well-being of the tenant. “It’s worth looking at why tenants are unable to exercise any rights, why they’re unable to use the law. They don’t know [and] they’re too frightened,” she explains.

“If we were having this conversation saying, is it better for people to eat in restaurants to use the court system when they get food poisoning, or to have some sort of mediation system with the restaurant, you’d say that’s ridiculous”

Peacock thinks the law should only come into effect when the system fails, rather than serving as a mechanism to deal with inequalities within that system. Housing courts could be a step in the right direction. But even after the repeal of Section 21, it remains unclear just how far the policy would go to confront the problems of the rental property market.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

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