No-fault evictions and the persistence of feudalism in housing

Sunday morning, February 11, the United Kingdom’s so-called housing minister Michael Gove appeared on BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning politics show, and he did not fail to politick. When asked about the housing situation and in particular the Tory government’s four-year failure to pass its Renters (Reform) Bill which would ban no-fault evictions, the minister “promised” to end no-fault evictions by the time the next general elections roll around, sometime at the end of this year or the beginning of next. Whether these are hollow promises or not, and they are, is an issue many are discussing. Why it is so difficult to end no-fault evictions, and not only in the United Kingdom, is another, equally sordid issue. The reason, to cut to the chase, no-fault evictions persist is that renters today just as renters two hundred years ago find themselves firmly embedded in contemporary feudalism.

But first, a quick summary of the sad history of not addressing no-fault evictions. In 2019, the Conservative Party’s manifesto promised to end Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which codified the right, and power, of landlords to evict tenants “without having to establish fault on the part of the tenant”. In April 2019, the government announced “plans to consult on new legislation to abolish Section 21 evictions – so called ‘no-fault’ evictions”.  That consultation went from April 2019 to October 2019. The resulting consultation paper proposed abolishing Section 21. That was over four years ago. What happened? A great deal and absolutely nothing.

Formally, nothing happened until June 2022, when the government issued a White Paper, “A fairer private rented sector”, which offered a 12-point action plan. The third action, in its entirety, reads: “We will deliver our manifesto commitment to abolish Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions and deliver a simpler, more secure tenancy structure. A tenancy will only end if the tenant ends it or if the landlord has a valid ground for possession, empowering tenants to challenge poor practice and reducing costs associated with unexpected moves.” That was June 2022. The Queens Speech 2022 stated that a Renters Reform Bill would be introduced in the 2022 – 2023 session of Parliament. It wasn’t. So where is Section 21 today?

On one hand, a bill was finally introduced. The discussion of the bill has been delayed, again, until at least March. On the other, more dire hand, 2023 saw a 50% increase over 2022 in no-fault evictions, the highest number of no-fault evictions since 2016. Since the government first announced it would ban no-fault evictions, 26,000 households, 26,000 families, have suffered no-fault evictions. Landlords can smell something going on and are acting “accordingly”.

While one in five Conservative MPs are landlords, even if that were not the case, the Renters (Reform) Bill would have a tough road. Landlords have argued, apparently persuasively, that giving tenants “just cause” protection would harm the rental market. While there’s no evidence of that, and while this bill doesn’t go nearly far enough, one can see in the formulation an image of what that market actually is. A place where only the landlord exists. Paid your rent, month in month out, for years, maybe even decades? If you had the temerity to complain about maintenance, you’re out. If you had the gall to complain about exorbitant rent hikes or management harassment, you’re out. If something has changed the general broader neighborhood and people with more money are beginning to consider renting there, you’re out. Period. The years you’ve invested in maintaining the property count for less than nothing, less than nothing because now you have the Scarlet Letter E. Good luck finding a place to live.

This scenario is playing out around the world. 4% of evictions in Canada are no-fault evictions. In British Columbia, the epicenter of evictions in Canada, 85% of evictions were no-fault evictions, compared to 65% nationally. How do landlords explain this “epidemic” of no-fault evictions? They say the rules are too strict. Tenant advocates point out that the rules and punishments are actually among the easiest in Canada. Similarly, Australia is suffering a rise in no-fault evictions.

Across the United States, no-fault evictions are on the rise as well. In Connecticut, where evictions have risen steadily, no-fault evictions used to make up 9% of evictions annually. Now they comprise 11%. In April, California will once again ban no-fault evictions. In 2019, California passed “a landmark law” which prohibited no-fault evictions, with three exceptions: the landlord moving into the units, making repairs, or taking the units off the rental market. Guess what happened? In Santa Clara County a landlord evicted tenants, claiming relatives had to move. Magically, soon after, the apartments were re-listed at nearly double the price. Under the new law, landlords moving into their units or renting to family will have to identify the people moving in. They will have to move in within three months of eviction, and they will have to live in the unit for at least a year. Those who evict tenants to renovate properties, so called renovictions, will have to provide copies of permits or contracts when serving eviction notices. If landlords do not comply, they will have to allow evicted tenants to return under the original lease terms. Finally, the new law authorizes the attorney general, local government and renters to sue landlords for wrongful evictions and illegal rent increases.

From the United Kingdom to Canada to Australia to the United States and beyond, the elimination of no-fault evictions is an ongoing struggle. Powerful landlord groups are fierce in their opposition. Even when laws are passed, as happened in California, landlords find ways of exploiting what seemed like reasonable exceptions. Tenants often are uninformed about their rights and their power. And finally, often, as the new California law suggests, even when the eviction is wrongful, illegal, the tenant is left to pursue justice in civil court. Even though the landlord has actually broken the law, the State does not prosecute. Why does the State not pursue landlords who engage in wrongful eviction? Because in feudalism the bond between land and lord is sacred, and the tenants are not even shadows.


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: The Guardian / Bill Bragg)