Last autumn, writing for the left-wing magazine Tribune, I predicted that winter 2020-1 would witness a large number of evictions. I predicted that, because there was a ban on bailiff’s appointments still in operation, many of these would be illegal evictions:
“One experience we will see repeatedly in the months to come is a spasm of fury on a landlord’s part when they grasp that an eviction, which they thought would only take a month or two from beginning to end, will require a year to work through every stage (from initial notice seeking possession, to court hearing, and then a bailiff’s date).”
“If I was a member of a tenants’ union, right now I would be preparing for what will inevitably be an increase in the number of landlords seeking to evict unlawfully, ignoring court proceedings and simply changing locks without an order.
Today, unlike then, we actually have some solid data on evictions. We have “Mortgage and landlord possession statistics” for October to December 2020. They show that possession claims were still running at low rates by the end of last year – with more or less zero legal evictions taking place in that quarter. That’s not surprising; there was an eviction ban, and it worked. More surprising is the very low number of possession claims – ie landlords issuing a claim in the court, as a preliminary towards getting a possession order and then a bailiff’s date. Those were running at the rate of about 2,000 a month in October-December or 1/5 of the usual figure. In other words, landlords weren’t just failing at the final hurdle of the legal eviction process, they weren’t even getting to the first stage.
Meanwhile, Shelter believes 700,000 tenants have been issued with a section 21 eviction notice (i.e. a letter entitling the landlord to start possession proceedings) since the start of the lockdown. Fit that alongside the low number of possession claims, and the reality appears to be that landlords have been making a large number of very hollow eviction threats: for every 100 landlords threatening to take their tenants to court, only 1 actually has.
A further set of figures may help to fill in the gaps between these numbers. H-Clic is data generated by local authority homelessness officers. Of course, not everyone who loses their homes approaches their council. But we are at least talking about data which has been generated on a relatively consistent basis both before and during the lockdown.
According to these figures, just over 100,000 people asked their council for homelessness assistance – this figure is down by around 1/3 compared to 2019, but that fall is artificial. The local authority homelessness system broke down for large parts of the pandemic – for weeks, the offices were shut, and staff weren’t answering calls. It seems that real housing need is as great as ever.
Housing officers report that in the whole of the UK just 90 people were unlawfully evicted in October to December 2020. Now, from one perspective, this must be a highly misleading figure. The effect of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 is that a landlord can only evict, or take preparatory steps to evict, by issuing court notices, and taking a tenant to court. Anything more than that is – in the broadest terms – illegal. The figures show that, for example, around 6,000 tenants approached their local authority for help in winter 2020, saying they had been told to leave their flat and the landlord was ordering them to go because they had reached the end of their tenancy. Given that eviction bans were in operation for most of this time, there is a decent case to be made that most, many or even all of these tenants were being “illegally” evicted.
On the other hand, if we treat the figure of 90 illegal evictions as meaning that only 90 tenants had their locks changed by the landlord per quarter – this shows that, on that definition, illegal evictions were no higher in winter 2020-1 than they had been a year before.
To conclude, what do I think has been happening:
-Landlords have been issuing section 21 notices (i.e. threats to evict) at higher than pre-pandemic rates, but issuing court proceedings at lower than pandemic rates. Effectively, they have misunderstood the present legal situation and assumed that the current “eviction ban” means the same as what it did a year ago – that court hearings aren’t happening, when in actual reality the courts are open and desperate for more work. (All that remains is a ban on bailiff’s dates and that only until the end of this month).
-Landlords have been giving their tenants all sort of warnings, legal letters, notices, etc. But they haven’t yet resorted to the most extreme options of changing the locks, turning the electricity off – the things which might get a landlord in trouble with the police.
-One reason why we’re not getting more locks changed etc, is that tenants have a weak sense of their own rights. If a tenancy agreement comes to the end of its 6-month or 1-year term, that doesn’t mean the tenant has to leave (if they don’t, the tenancy will just become an automatic rolling tenancy). If a landlord issues a tenant with a section 21 notice, that doesn’t mean a tenant has to go – they can wait, and the landlord has to apply to the court. And if the tenant has access to any sort of legal advice, the chances are they will win a case to stay. But, instead of that, there are still tens of thousands of tenants every month receiving section 21 notices and treating those letters as an absolute insistence that they must leave. Tenants are treating landlords as if they have much more power than they do. In other words, landlords aren’t changing locks because they don’t have to – tenants are leaving, when asked.
I understand why tenants might want to leave in response to a first threat – often the same landlord who hand out section 21 notices repeatedly are also ones who refuse to pay for repairs. Most people don’t like conflict; what tenant would want to be stuck with a landlord who hates them?
In addition, with tens of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people having left London in the pandemic, now is a good time to be looking at the housing market and seeing if you couldn’t get just as large a flat on considerably low rent. Leaving a tenancy has beecome, for some tenants, an opportunity. The fear of tenants’ growing market power may also be causing some landlords to hold off on issuing possession proceedings – a tenant who can’t afford the full rent may still be a better commercial proposition than an empty flat.
For the moment, in hundreds of thousands of homes people are muddling by. Perhaps landlords accepting a lower rent than they need to (although paper rent arrears are growing all the time, to be enforced in due course), and tenants agreeing to go before they need to.
But, all the time, there’s a constant fear that the system is about to lurch in a much more sinister direction. That the eviction ban will end and nothing replace it. That landlords will be empowered to take all the steps that, so far, they’ve only been threatening to do.
The moment of truth will come at the end of this month, when the eviction ban reaches its end. If landlords respond by issuing claims in the proportion that they have been handing out section 21 notices – then we will indeed see the wave of evictions that tenants’ representatives have been warning about.
My book Jobs and Homes: Stories of the Law in Lockdown has been published by Legal Action. It is available to order here (https://amzn.to/3nFJXb4) and here (https://www.lag.org.uk/shop/book-title/210103/jobs-and-homes).