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Living In Squalor

About The Author

Anjum Shabbir (Guest Contributor)

Anjum (LPC, BPP Law School) is an avid supporter of disseminating legal advice to vulnerable categories of society. Her aspirations have been complemented by fruitful insights at Deighton Pierce Glynn, Fair Trials International and the AIRE Centre, and a specialisation in EU law from working and studying in the Netherlands.

The ‘Offending’ law

The Housing Act 1988 brought non-­local authority social housing into the domain of the private sector. These landlords, known as registered providers of social housing, have a legal duty to keep property at a reasonable standard and to remove health and safety hazards (D. Astin, Housing Law Adviser’s Handbook, 2nd edition (2012), chapter 3).

The type of tenancy agreement made with a private landlord is usually an Assured Shorthold Tenancy. Under this kind of tenancy, the landlord does not require any ground, reason, or fault of the tenant to evict the tenant according to section 21 Housing Act 1988. So a ‘good’ tenant can be evicted even if they are up to date with rent payments. The landlord only has to serve a notice in writing giving the tenant at least two months to up sticks and leave. If the tenant does not comply, the landlord can apply for a court order to reclaim possession of the property (section 21(b) and 21(4) Housing Act 1988). This is in stark contrast to a tenant who has an Assured Tenancy: this provides substantive security of tenure (protection from having to move), and requires a notice in which actual reasons (grounds for eviction) must be shown, such as not paying the rent on time, or engaging in anti­social behaviour that disturbs others. 

Misuse of the law

Housing charity, Shelter has reported that tenants are being unfairly evicted through this ‘section 21’ notice simply because they report problems with the property they occupy: often problems that puts their health at risk. Examples of unacceptable conditions are unsafe showers causing electric shock, mouldy walls, sewage-flooded basements, severe cold, cockroach infestation, or exposed electrical wiring. Shelter state that in 2013 more than 210,000 tenants were subject to this treatment, ‘revenge evictions’, because of the power given to private landlords by section 21. In order to avoid carrying out repairs, a landlord can evict a tenant without a reason to do so.

Pushing disadvantaged tenants further into a hole?

The charity also reports that a large number of those affected are particularly vulnerable to eviction because they are lone parents, families with dependent children, receive housing benefit, or are from minority backgrounds (a reported 20% of the affected categories). In fact, 69% of the 9 million private renters feel that they are between a dirty rock and a hard, mouldy wall: because of difficult personal circumstances, families report that they live in fear and that there is no choice but to avoid reporting poor living conditions so that they will not be evicted.

Similarly, Citizens Advice Bureau reported 17,000 complaints of this nature in the last 12 months, and on 26 November released a report detailing the struggle to get landlords to improve the quality of their homes. A further reported problem is that the tenant remains liable to pay for the rent until the eviction takes place, and if the local authority refuses to help find new accommodation because they consider the situation to be ‘intentional homelessness’.

The backdrop of the national housing crisis compounds the plight of those affected, highlighting that tenants are the weaker party. The decline in social housing, rising housing prices, and cuts to social security such as the ‘bedroom tax’ mean that ‘revenge evictions’ are a serious problem for those who cannot buy their own homes, who struggle to afford the rent for their homes, and who are uprooted from local schools and support networks.

A Potential ‘Rescue’ Law 

Sarah Teather of the Liberal Democrats, supported by MPs such as Stephen Williams, has responded to this issue and initiated a private member’s Bill to propose local authority and court intervention in this area. A debate and vote on the matter took place in Parliament, ahead of which protests were held in Parliament Square on 24 November. Section 1(1) of the Tenancies (Reform) Bill 2014-15 specifies that if a section 21 notice is used, the landlord will not be able to evict the tenant for a period of six months starting from the date the notice has been considered received (served), and there are added protections in place if the tenant has complained of poor conditions in the property to the local authority (section 1(2)(a) and 1(3)(a). 

Shelter, the CAB, campaigners Generation Rent and a selection of MPs from the main parties support the Bill because it will enable a right of appeal for tenants, the involvement of the local authority in checking living standards, and the opportunity for the court to prevent unfair evictions before issuing a court order for possession. However some ministers want to be sure that the Bill will not thwart legitimate evictions because of a few rogue landlords, and landlords may consequently be deterred from renting in this sector. 

Unfortunately, on 1 December the Bill was blocked by two Conservative MPs because they spoke throughout the time allocated for the debate, and only 60 of the required 100 MPs were able to actually vote on the Bill. This has led to disappointment all round, and some commentators have remarked that it is unsurprising that these MPs are reportedly private landlords. 

This does not spell the end of the matter, only a postponement: four members of the House of Lords are bringing the Bill back, and there is a suggestion that there will be a stronger chance of it becoming law next year.

The Bill is more than welcome. We need the Bill to protect the private tenants who are more vulnerable to eviction and homelessness, and to encourage the improvement of social housing provided by private landlords. Everyone hopes this Bill will pass, except perhaps a handful of rogue private landlords.

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Tagged: Housing Law

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