Section 21: Terrible for tenants and lengthy for landlords in court

Our campaign to end unfair evictions has caught the attention of Parliament. On Thursday, MPs are debating “the use of Section 21 evictions in the private rented sector”.

We’re calling for the abolition of Section 21, and the government is considering responses to its proposed three-year tenancies. This is the first opportunity MPs will have to air their views on reform, and quiz the Housing Minister, Heather Wheeler, on her department’s proposals. We’ll get a sense of what there is cross-party support for.

Ahead of the debate, we wanted to take a look at what we know about evictions and their extent. It's important to note that the problems with Section 21 go far beyond the basic number of evictions. The threat of a no-fault eviction discourages tenants from treating the property as their long term home, and even from complaining about disrepair.

The Ministry of Justice publishes quarterly statistics on the number of evictions by social landlords, by private landlords through the Section 8 process (recorded as private landlord possessions), and through the Section 21 process (recorded as accelerated possessions). Social landlords sometimes put tenants on assured shorthold tenancies, which means that some accelerated evictions may involve social landlords – we’re more interested in the type of tenancy/eviction than the type of landlord.

Since 2015, Section 21 evictions appear to have been falling. We don’t have figures for actual Section 21 notices: because you cannot appeal a valid one, most recipients move out before the case reaches court. But we do have figures for claims, possession orders, warrants and actual repossessions by bailiffs. If the court makes a repossession order under Section 21 then you generally have to start packing.

Section 21 possession orders have fallen from a high of 8015 in Q3 2015 to 4621 in Q3 2018. That is still 4621 households who faced losing their home between July and September, but the drop is clearly significant, and it’s important to understand the reasons behind it. By definition the reasons for Section 21 evictions are not recorded, but the English Housing Survey did find that in 63% of cases where tenants were told to leave by their landlord, the landlord wanted to sell the property or use it themselves.

Step in possession process

Q3 2015

Q3 2018

Section 8

Section 21

Section 8

Section 21

Claims

5073

9681

5781

5813

Orders

3626

8015

4179

4621

Warrants

2055

5980

2457

3181

Repossessions

1529

4437

1732

2316

Section 8 evictions have increased slightly over the same period. These evictions can only take place if the landlord has grounds, such as rent arrears. The impact of several welfare changes – sanctions, the benefit cap for families, the inability to have housing benefit paid direct to the landlord – is the most likely explanation of this trend. Additionally, a smaller proportion of Section 8 cases result in repossession than Section 21. One reason is that some cases are resolved when rent arrears are cleared.

As we have argued previously, no-fault evictions are cyclical: when market rents and house prices are rising, landlords feel more confident about either selling up or raising the rent, and so will evict tenants in order to do so. But since tax changes were announced in 2015, property has become a less attractive investment, so house prices have slowed, and are even falling in London. At the same time, rent inflation is slowing, so landlords are less likely to get a better rent if they have to find a new tenant. As it might also take longer to find a buyer, it is less risky to stick with the tenants they have.

The experience of the last three years appears to support the English Housing Survey finding and our analysis. When the housing market revives, tenants can expect more landlords to decide to sell up or price them out with rent hikes – unless we do something about Section 21.

The Ministry of Justice statistics are useful in another way. Section 8 is usually only used when Section 21, which doesn’t require evidence of grounds for eviction, is unavailable. Landlords can only use Section 21 if they have met certain obligations such as protecting the deposit and having a valid gas safety certificate.

The Residential Landlords Association says that "many landlords are using section 21, or ‘no explanation’ evictions, because the alternative process that requires applications to the court are too long and cumbersome."

But the Ministry of Justice statistics suggest that Section 21 cases take longer from start to finish than Section 8. So Section 21 is not necessarily the answer for landlords looking to remove tenants quickly. 

Type of eviction Median time in weeks from claim to possession. England, 2017 Mean time in weeks from claim to possession. England, 2017 Median time in weeks from claim to possession. London, 2017  Mean time in weeks from claim to possession. London, 2017  
Section 8 (private landlord) 16.1 22.0 19.0 25.0
Section 21 (Accelerated) 17.0 24.4 20.1 30.8


Of course, any change that requires grounds to remove a tenant from their home will involve a review of court processes to ensure the system would be able to cope with the change. Using Section 8 instead of Section 21 might involve more effort for a landlord to make the case that their tenant has broken the agreement. But these figures cast doubt on the idea that Section 21 helps landlords remove at-fault tenants any quicker. And it’s not obvious that scrapping Section 21 would mean landlords with legitimate grounds would have to wait longer.

A better way to reduce lengthy periods of rent arrears for landlords while waiting on the court process would be to improve tenants’ ability to pay. The English Housing Survey figures for 2016-17 show that 8.3% of households receiving housing benefit were in rent arrears, whereas just 2.3% of households not receiving welfare support were in rent arrears. Revisiting the welfare changes that are causing stretched tenants to miss rent payments is the real answer to reducing risk for landlords, rather than relying on Section 21 evictions which create so many problems and anxieties for all tenants while offering no benefits for many landlords in terms of court process. They're known as accelerated possessions but really we could call them decelerated possessions given that they take longer. 

It's an issue which is sure to come up during the debate in Parliament later this week, as well as ongoing discussion as the End Unfair Evictions campaign gathers pace. Since the campaign launched in June we handed in a petition calling on the Secretary of State James Brokenshire to abolish Section 21 which received 50,000 signatures in 10 weeks. Our submission to the government's consultation on longer tenancies made clear that meaningful improvements in security of tenure for renters must involve scrapping Section 21, and hundreds of our supporters also wrote into the government consultation to reiterate this point. 

The call to end Section 21 evictions has been backed by a growing range of charities, think-tanks, newspapers, trade unions, and local authorities. These include Age UK London, Independent Age, Children England, The Salvation Army, Centrepoint, Crisis, Just Fair, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, Shelter, UNISON, Civitas, Resolution Foundation, the London Assembly, The Times, the Labour Party, and the Green Party. Five councils have passed motions, with cross-party support, backing the call to end Section 21 evictions: Brent, Croydon, Cambridge, Southwark, and Lewisham. And tomorrow, MPs will debate the use of Section 21 in Parliament. The evidence is building and the case for scrapping this draconian law can no longer be ignored. 

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