We took a removals van to the Ministry of Housing. Here’s why

Some to let signs. Image: Getty.

If you were in Westminster this week you will have struggled to miss the members of Extinction Rebellion demanding action from our politicians to stop cooking the planet. If you were anywhere near the Ministry of Housing, you might also have spotted one of the culprits behind the climate emergency: a removals van.

Right now if you’re a renter, thanks to a law called section 21, you could be told to leave your home with just two months’ notice. It might be because you’ve complained about the single glazed windows in your home or a leak in your roof. And what that means is hauling your worldly possessions across town, not to mention another trip to IKEA to try and make your next house loosely resemble a home, and not a squat.

So that’s why yesterday we found ourselves lugging a replica van down to the heart of government , to deliver a message for the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick: England’s 4.5m private renters need somewhere to call home.

The government has already taken a major, welcome step towards this, with a promise to abolish Section 21, the right of landlords to evict tenants without needing a reason. Its consultation on how this will work in practice closes this Saturday.

The proposals are designed to stop unscrupulous landlords evicting tenants for no good reason or using the threat of an eviction to bully tenants into staying quiet about mistreatment or disrepair. It’s no surprise that private rented homes are more likely to be classed as unsafe when landlords who don’t want to provide a decent home can avoid their obligations by turfing out tenants who try to exercise their rights.

Many landlords tell us they want their tenants to stay long term. But because every landlord has Section 21 up their sleeve, few tenants know for sure that their landlord definitely won’t get annoyed enough to serve an eviction notice when the cooker breaks.

That’s why the government wants to require landlords to provide – and prove – valid grounds in order to take back their property. Tenants would have more confidence to make requests and develop good communication and trust with their landlord. Clearer expectations make it easier to plan our lives.

But the proposals have gaps that could keep tenants in a precarious position. An unscrupulous landlord could avoid the evictions process altogether and try to raise the rent to an unaffordable level. While tenants would be able to challenge rent hikes at a tribunal, decisions are based on what the market rent is, so if you live somewhere that’s got fashionable in recent years (hello East Londoners), you could still get priced out for speaking out.

The proposals also contain grounds for eviction that mean tenants can lose their home for reasons outside their control: if the landlord wants to sell up or move back in.

In both those cases, a decent landlord would make alternative arrangements: to sell to another landlord with the tenants in situ, or find somewhere else to live. Whether they like it or not, landlords are running a business and their personal decisions should not trump the interests of their customers.

If there is no option but to take back possession, landlords should have a duty to help rehouse their tenant – that means giving them plenty of time to find somewhere new and covering the costs of finding a new deposit, paying rent on two properties at the same time, and getting a removal van. According to the English Housing Survey, nearly two-thirds of private tenants have no savings, so Section 21 is currently plunging thousands of tenants into debt and putting unnecessary strain on local councils’ homelessness teams. This would continue under the current proposals.

Safeguards around “no-fault” grounds for eviction would help tenants during what is a stressful time whoever wanted to end the tenancy, encourage landlords to find alternatives that don’t involve someone uprooting their life, and cut the numbers experiencing homelessness.

We have put these demands in an open letter to Robert Jenrick and Boris Johnson, which has so far been signed by more than 50,000 supporters of the End Unfair Evictions campaign. We have also whittled the long, dry consultation down to a survey with the most important questions to make it as easy as possible for renters to be heard as the government considers responses to the consultation.

And as the urgency of action on climate change builds there are a couple more modest benefits of overhauling tenancy law. You will have more incentive to ask for your home to be insulated properly. And without thousands of unwanted moves every year, we would eliminate the carbon emissions of thousands of trips by removal vans. 

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent. The End Unfair Evictions coalition is made up of Generation Rent, ACORN, London Renters Union, Tenants Union UK and New Economics Foundation.


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.