The Renters Union: A legal perspective

We were incredibly excited about Sian Berry’s Renters Union proposal, but how did we get to this state in the housing market?
Local member and paralegal, Tim, gives us a bit of historical perspective

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renters_union_logo_final_720Last week, Sian Berry announced her Renters Union plans, which would be funded by City Hall, and help renters to rein in private rents and expose rogue lettings agents.

As many of our members are private renters we were incredibly excited about this proposal, especially following Lastminute.com’s recent PR stunt based on rent increases.

Profit over people turned into an advert… Is that meta or just a sad state of affairs? –
top-secret-hotels
lastminute stats

(Of course, most of the us effected by renting increases can’t afford the hotel option either!)

But, how did we get here?
Newham Greens member and Paralegal, Tim, gave us the rundown.

The Renter’s Union: A Legal and Historical Perspective

The American journalist and political economist Henry George, in his first book Poverty and Progress, wrote of what he saw as the danger of an over-mighty class of landlords is presented uncompromising terms; ‘Could he thus concentrate the individual rights to the whole surface of the globe, he alone of all the teeming population of the earth would have the right to live’. George’s words, written in 1879, probably sounded somewhat comical, even to the Victorians, in their sheer apocalyptic heft. One can assume that he was exaggerating for effect, to give an illustration of the dangers of excessive claim to ownership being brought by only a small group of people. But surely, things would never become as bad as that?

Since 28 February 1997, it has been the default position that all tenancies granted in England and Wales, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the relevant agreements, were to be Assured Shorthold Tenancies. These differ from Assured Tenancies in that the occupant, upon expiry of the agreement (usually after one year) has no inherent security of tenure, a position enshrined in section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.

The reasons for this move are well documented; property as a resource was intended to become more alienable and therefore more saleable, so as to allow for the greatest ease of commercial transaction. There has been a deliberate shift in legislative emphasis away from the idea of property as, primarily, a place in which to live, and towards an idea of property as an exploitable commodity.

Statistics from NPI research - poorest private renters pay 57% of earnings in rent
Source: New Policy Institute

This is no great secret; the intention behind the legislation has been a well-documented, relatively uncontroversial matter in parliamentary and judicial circles for years. It was even opined as recently as 2005 in the Court of Appeal case of Secretarial and Nominee Co. Ltd. V Thomas that the ultimate result of all of this would be to make the letting of residential property ‘more attractive to landlords and thus more available to tenants’

Evidently, Lord Justice Rix did not have in mind a housing and rental market warped by successive property bubbles and the terrifying speed with which wage growth was outstripped by the growth of house prices. (Perhaps, but for these factors, something of that libertarian utopia, guaranteeing a ‘right to roam’ for anyone who had the means for it, might have been realised?) And yet all of this risks overlooking the simple reality of how the use of land and property is linked, at a more fundamental level, to human wellbeing. In the words of Lord Bingham, giving judgment in the House of Lords in 2004 in Harrow LBC v Quazi “few things are more central to the enjoyment of human life than having somewhere to live”.

Granted, one of the rights which an Assured Shorthold tenant is supposed to is that of ‘exclusive possession’ of the property, that is, the ability to eject anyone from the property, including the landlord, except for the purpose of carrying out necessary cleaning or repair duties. However, this right is only guaranteed for the life of the tenancy. Section 21 ensures that after the terms of the tenancy have expired the tenant can effectively be ejected at will and must, if the court so orders it, vacate the property within 14 days. The courts enjoy maximum discretion to delay the eviction for up to six weeks in cases of ‘exceptional hardship’, but so long as the paperwork is in order, that’s it.

Crisis - cause of homelessness
Source: Crisis – Homelessness Monitor England 2015 (pdf)

In some cases, the tenancy will continue unofficially as a ‘periodic tenancy’, with the landlord continuing to accept rent every month even after the expiry of the tenancy. However, this leaves the tenant in an even more vulnerable position, whereby a landlord can effectively hold the tenant to ransom in exchange for allowing them to overlook some of their own duties as landlords to maintain the property. So-called ‘revenge evictions’ are an ever-present danger.

According to the homelessness charity Shelter, 52,270 households were accepted as homeless by their local councils in England in 2013 and 2014. Of those, over a quarter were made homeless by the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy. In London, this proportion rises to four cases in ten.

gov figures homeless Q1 2014
Source: Dept. of Communities and Local Government – ‘Statutory Homelessness: January to March Quarter 2014 England (Revised)’ (pdf)

Fighting one’s case becomes that much harder when, after the coming into force of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’), Housing cases were one of a number of sectors which were deemed to be no longer eligible to receive civil legal aid. Anyone finding themselves at the sharp end of a landlord’s notice and in need of advice or representation now either has to put up the cash or, in the majority of cases, represent themselves, usually appearing opposite a well-briefed advocate for the other side in an uneven fight.

Although the ability to fight these cases and knowledge of such rights as tenant’s do have is only one facet of a much larger problem, it is nevertheless one where practical action can be taken now, and which Sian Berry, as part of her Mayoral campaign, is now proposing. The official briefing (pdf) cites the successful growth and campaigning power of a number of other citizen’s organisations, including ACORN in the USA (and now sprouting in parts of the UK) and the network of tenants’ unions being fostered by NUS Scotland, together with a growing number of London-based community associations.

A Renters Union, of which every one of the 2.3 million privately renting tenants in London would automatically be a member, would be an important step in trying to redress this unbalanced state of affairs. After that, the long work of root-and-branch reform of decades of housing policy must begin, and soon.

 

We’ve seen so many loved ones and valued community members forced out of their neighbourhoods by rising housing costs, if you have a story to share please let us know in the comments below.

If you need help with your housing situation, you should contact UK housing charities Shelter and Crisis.

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