Happy 30th birthday to Section 21 of the Housing Act! Please die soon

Properties to rent. Image: Getty.

On this day in 1988, the UK’s Housing Act received Royal Assent, deregulating the private rental market and laying the ground for the tenancy system we know today.

It will be a lonely 30th birthday for the legislation. Given the chance, its fellow millennials would not provide a good-natured round of The Bumps. In fact, we’d rather fling it out of the window.

Section 21 of the Act gives landlords the ability to evict tenants without needing a reason. This has made renting both the only option for millions of people – and an inadequate tenure that most are desperate to escape.

By making it easier to empty homes of their tenants, Section 21 made residential property a lot more liquid an asset. As you could cash in when you felt like it. That meant becoming a landlord was no longer a massive commitment, so it became more attractive to amateurs with money to invest. The ensuing buy-to-let boom resulted in the private renter population more than doubling.

Investors effectively outbid would-be first-time buyers, then let out the properties they snapped up to the same people. Since the 1990s, house prices have risen from around four times incomes to eight times, but the desire for home ownership remains; most renters still expect to buy a home in the future.

The reasons for their disloyalty to their current tenure are not hard to fathom. Section 21 means that tenants can comply with their contract to the letter and still be asked to leave with just two months’ notice and no assistance in finding a new home. Nearly two thirds of evictions happen because the landlord wants to sell or use the property, according to the English Housing Survey.

If a council considers an evicted tenant to be unintentionally homeless, and in priority need, it has a duty to rehouse them – but in many cases the only option is to put them up in temporary accommodation, which costs. Such accommodation cost taxpayers nearly £1bn last year.

Even if you never receive a Section 21 notice, the threat of one always looms, so that renters never know where they will live next year. There is none of the confidence about investing time to decorate their homes or get involved in the local community that social tenants and owner-occupiers enjoy. The effect is infantilising, but also leads to the appalling levels of disrepair in private rented homes. One in seven are considered unsafe – if landlords could not credibly threaten an eviction or rent hike if their tenant complains about mould or cold, then that number wouldn’t be nearly so high.


And, not that it’s an excuse, but the private rented sector is no longer dominated by the itinerant and strapping students and young professionals of lore. One in four children now lives in the tenure, while the average age of a private renter is 40. The law that governs the sector fails to reflect its customers’ needs so desperately needs updating. Policymakers’ assumption should be that private tenants need and deserve stable homes as much as any other tenure.

This is why we need to end Section 21. In its place we would have open-ended tenancies that give tenants the flexibility to move out if their circumstances change, but restrict landlords’ ability to evict, by requiring them to prove the grounds to do so.

A list of valid grounds is already set out in Section 8 of the Housing Act. If a landlord needed to repossess from tenants who were not at fault, they would need to make a relocation payment to mitigate the upheaval they faced. And rent rises would be limited to wage inflation to prevent landlords sidestepping new rules by raising it to unaffordable levels.

Amid the unfolding drama of Brexit, the likelihood of a snap election is growing, and contenders for power must offer something to the millions of renters who are the 1988 act’s legacy. To give them some inspiration, the End Unfair Evictions campaign is asking renters on social media to #ReinventYourRent on today’s anniversary. Our bank balances and mental health cannot tolerate any more of this outdated law.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.