The fight for a fairer housing system in England

Only when renting is genuinely affordable will the UK private rented sector be fit for purpose

The government has announced its plans to repeal section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. Innocuous as its sounds, ending this piece of legislation will make a massive difference to housing security for the 4.7 million private renting households in the UK, and their ability to make a home in their rented property.

Section 21 gave landlords the power to evict tenants from their home with no reason, with just 8 weeks’ notice. In other words, section 21 represented one of the starkest reasons why the private rented sector in the UK is among the most brutal, unaffordable and insecure places to live for private tenants in Europe, and has no part in a 21st century housing system. Today marks a huge victory for the End Unfair Evictions campaign of which NEF is a part, as the government has finally bowed to pressure from the growing renters’ movement and committed to ending this abhorrent legislation.

But the English private rented sector is seriously broken and ending section 21 is just the first step towards repairing it. In terms of security, affordability and safety, private renting lags ways behind owner occupation and social renting – the other two primary forms of occupying a house in the UK. Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed to attract investment and landlords into the sector, which meant that a system was built in which the balance of power was weighted almost entirely in favour of landlords. As the social housing stock has been eroded, with more than one million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped in the private rented sector, in unacceptable conditions.

Insecurity in the private rented sector destroys lives. The Housing Act 1988 created a housing system in which tenants are repeatedly screwed over — evicted multiple times in their lifetime — simply so that landlords can have absolute flexibility’ in relation to their investment’, otherwise known as their tenant’s homes.

Renters are increasingly working hard to do little other than line their landlords pockets

The repeal of section 21 marks a significant win in the fight for a fairer housing system in England. Not so long ago, such a victory would have been almost unthinkable. But over the last few years something has changed. A growing renters movement has emerged in the UK, in which tenants are coming together to work collectively, and demand a better housing system. Groups like the London Renters Union are winning better conditions on the ground for their members, while taking the fight for a fairer model of housing to the government. Just last week, the Union looks set to have won back almost £5,000 in unfairly taken deposit and fees back for a tenant, who never even moved into their property. The letting agent had flatly refused to refund the tenant, until the Union launched a campaign to support their member, Mary.

NEF has worked with some of these groups through the End Unfair Evictions coalition, and the victory on repealing section 21 shows just how strong this movement is becoming. With our coalition partners Generation Rent, London Renters Union, Acorn and Tenants Union UK, we know that a strong, empowered and collectively organised renters’ movement is the only way we will succeed in winning a fair housing system for private renters.

However, with our unregulated system of private rents, landlords still have the power to de facto evict tenants through rent hikes. And, in general, unaffordability is as big a problem for renters as security, in many places. 

The cost of rent has fast outpaced wage growth, such that rents are vastly unaffordable on even average wages in some places. For example, rents in London grew by 22% between 2011 and 2018, compared with just 10% growth in earnings. The English Housing survey found in 2017 that young people were spending on average 80% of their income on rent. Renters are increasingly working hard to do little other than line their landlords pockets.

To build a truly fair rental system, rents need to be capped, and in many places deflated. Only when renting is genuinely affordable – the accepted yardstick is 30 – 35% of a tenants post-tax income – will the private rented sector in the UK be fit for purpose. At NEF we have been working on designing a modern system of rent control, which works in the context of the UK housing system. Next month we will be launching our report which shows how the government can sustainably get rents under control, and increase affordability for renters, providing a blueprint for the next crucial step in building a fair housing system for private renters.

Banner Image: Vladimir Kudinov on Pexels

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