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.”