The new landlord lobbying group is fighting to regain the Tories’ ear

Home sweet home. Image: Getty.

When Kirsty Archer moved into her first apartment in Streatham at the age of 27, she finally felt like she had achieved the freedom to steer her own life.

The apartment she shared wasn’t perfect. It shouldered the usual creeks one might expect of a £1,400 a month two-bed flat built in 1933. An unreliable boiler, dodgy locks, the odd cold shower. But despite these teething problems, for Kirsty, it was home.

When she tried to iron out these issues, however, her landlord was impatient. “This is really stressing me out,” she was told. Kirsty remembers being warned: “I’ve never had any issues with any other tenants.”

She came to forget these glitches. Until one evening in February last year, Kirsty came home from work to find a thick, brown envelope waiting for her. She tore it open and, scanning the letter, burst into tears. She was being served with an eviction notice.

Kirsty felt puzzled – there was no specific reason given. “We’d done nothing wrong,” she said. Under Section 21 of Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Housing Act, “no-fault” evictions are permitted, meaning landlords can repossess their property in two months whenever they desire.

Kirsty had always considered Labour the party of renters. She’d even done some local organising with them in 2018. So it seemed surprising when Theresa May announced last April the government’s intention to side with renters and abolish Section 21. Advocacy groups, after campaigning for years to end no-fault evictions, were somewhat taken aback. The Conservatives had always been considered the party of landlords.

Unsurprisingly, the two major landlord interest groups, the National Landlords Association, based in London, and the Residential Landlords Association, based in Manchester, were quick to denounce the policy. Worse, they felt outflanked, outmaneuvered. How could a jumbled collection of tenant campaigners without central organisation have persuaded the Tories to turn leftwards? What would avoid them being caught flat-footed in the future?

“Utterly no doubt, it was politically motivated,” says John Stewart, the RLA policy manager. In his view, May was trying to win back voters that swung to Labour in 2017.

Stewart talks with a soft, lilting Scottish accent. He worked for the Liberal Democrats in parliament and as a city councilor in Aberdeen before joining the RLA, which represents 40,000 landlords. For him, Section 21 underpins the private rental sector, which accounts for 19 per cent of UK households. “It’s about the confidence to invest,” he says. No Section 21 will mean more AirBnbs.

Throughout summer 2019, the RLA and NLA became increasingly close campaigning to keep Section 21. They struck a good team. “I suspect the NLA might see themselves as more pragmatic and we might be seen as more belligerent,” Stewart said. Together, they boasted around 80,000 members speaking with a united voice.

They viewed the fall of May as an opportunity. “We thought when we got a new prime minister that there may be a chink of light,” Stewart said. The two groups decided it was time for bold action, and on 29 August announced plans for a merger, forming a group representing roughly 10 per cent of all rental homes.

Ben Beadle was the man tasked with building a tent big enough to encompass the pragmatic NLA and the belligerent RLA. In one way or another, his entire career had been spent enforcing discipline. Beadle was a Justice of the Peace in West London – dispensing “summary justice” in magistrates courts – alongside his role as operations director at property management firm Touchstone. In his younger days, he’d been a referee in the FA Cup. As he described it on his LinkedIn profile, “Officiating at this level requires a great deal of commitment, fitness and man management skills”. These attributes would come in handy – the merger was proving stressful. “I’ve got a lot of grey hairs,” he says.

As the incoming National Residential Landlords Association chief executive, Beadle wants to change the image of landlords as bogeymen. “Landlords are under the cosh,” he told me before the postponed launch. To Beadle’s dismay, Boris Johnson had committed to abolishing no-fault evictions in December. He felt like Johnson was “punishing landlords” for a “populist quick-win”.

Shelter claimed in 2017 that 78 per cent of new homelessness cases stem from a private tenancy eviction. But landlords argue they are victims of other policy failures upstream. Welfare cuts meant tenants were more likely to get into arrears. Legal cuts meant “Section 8” evictions – for arrears or antisocial behavior – became slow to attain through the courts. “There is a certain element of landlords being blamed for something that is the result of other policy measures,” Stewart says.

Now, Beadle is lobbying to make Section 8 evictions quicker. He’s already liaised with the elite No. 10 Policy Unit on the upcoming “Renters’ Reform Bill,” speaking with ministers before the Queen’s Speech.

A proliferation of new tenant campaigners – Acorn, the London Renters Union, Generation Rent and more – are determined to block him. “Our strength is not going to come from being able to persuade ministers behind closed doors, but by a movement on the streets,” says Jonny Butcher, a founder of Acorn Sheffield, which physically blocks evictions.

Kirsty’s eviction inflicted an emotional toll. “I was feeling anxious and stressed,” she says. She joined the LRU, which helped file an appeal, and became a spokesperson. When Sky News anchor and landlord Jayne Secker accused millennials of not having the “skills to rent,” Kirsty told her she was “patronising.” The clip quickly went viral.

But in the end it was too late for Kirsty. A few weeks after the government announced plans to end no-fault evictions, the door to her first apartment clicked shut for the last time.

For Butcher, the fight continues. He says abolishing Section 21 is “meaningless” without rent control. In his view, the rights of a tenant to a home outweigh the rights of a landlord to an income. He says: “I can imagine [the NRLA] are a little bit worried now. They’ve had it pretty good for the last thirty years – and the tide is beginning to change.”


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.