Following the end of the ‘evictions ban’, we did some research into the social housing sector in Greater Manchester. In this article, we evaluate Social Housing Providers’ responses to our Freedom of Information requests, and consider the arguments against using “mandatory grounds” to make evictions more “efficient”.
The protections introduced in March 2020 to protect renters from eviction during the pandemic are coming to an end.
Housing Minister Christopher Pincher attempted to justify the changes. “As Covid restrictions are eased in line with the roadmap out of lockdown, we will ensure tenants continue to be supported with longer notice periods, while also balancing the need for landlords to access justice.”
The changes mean that from 1 June 2021, bailiff evictions have been able to proceed without restriction (unless the tenant has COVID or is self-isolating) and the extended Notice periods are being gradually reduced with the aim of reducing them to their pre-pandemic levels by 1 October 2021.
According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, around 400,000 renting households have either been served an eviction notice or have been told they may be evicted (5% of all renters). Around a million renting households are worried about being evicted in the next three months (11% of all renters). Many people’s incomes have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, and high numbers of people continue to live on benefits they began to claim during the pandemic, which often do not cover full housing costs.
So what has been done for tenants to ensure that they have access to justice when at risk of losing their home? Very little.
Instead of taking the opportunity to rebalance the unfairness in the law that gives landlords an absolute right to possession, the government has merely introduced “breathing space”, a procedure in which tenants can pause eviction action for a maximum of 6 weeks while they deal with other debts.
What are ‘mandatory grounds’ for eviction and why challenge them?
Despite calls from campaigners, the government has decided to keep the laws (“mandatory grounds”) that give landlords an absolute right to possession and prevent judges considering whether eviction would be reasonable given the circumstances in the case.
Though they promised to abolish Section 21 Notices, which allow landlords to evict Assured Shorthold Tenants (the vast majority of private renters) without reason, the government has so far decided to keep the law as it is.
Likewise, the government has chosen to keep Ground 8 Notices, which allow landlords to evict Assured (the vast majority of housing association tenants) and Assured Shorthold Tenants when they owe a set amount of rent, regardless of the reason for arrears.
These grounds are called “mandatory” because the judge is mandated to make an outright possession order as long as the conditions (e.g. more than 2 months’ rent owed) are met, however unjust this would be. The judge is forced to evict even in cases where a tenant couldn’t pay through no fault of their own, and are doing all they can to reduce the arrears and save their home.
The abolition of mandatory grounds would not prevent a landlord evicting tenants on grounds of rent arrears. There are other “discretionary grounds” they can use. Under discretionary grounds, a judge can aim to make an order that is fair for both sides, considering the cause of arrears, the extent the tenant was to blame, the efforts made to put things right and the consequences for the tenants if they become homeless.
Mandatory grounds only serve to take away tenants’ access to justice while shoring up the power of landlords to evict at will.
Social Housing Providers and mandatory grounds
Without legal changes, it is difficult to regulate the behaviour of private landlords. On the whole, they don’t claim to be renting out properties other than for their own financial benefit.
Housing Associations, however, are different. They are “social landlords” who are required to reinvest their income in social purposes, and they do not pay a profit to shareholders.
On 28 May 2021, the National Housing Federation released a statement on evictions in which they claimed that all Social Housing Providers across the country had committed to “help” tenants in arrears and struggling to make rental payments as renter protections come to an end.
These are nice words and no doubt backed by good intent. However, the statement goes little beyond their existing pre-pandemic responsibilities (there is a pre-action protocol for social landlords requiring them to offer help to tenants in rent arrears). By failing to include a pledge not to use mandatory grounds, it asks social housing tenants to trust their landlords to decide when their eviction is reasonable.
We know from statistics that, contrary to many people’s perceptions, social landlords are no gentle giants when it comes to eviction proceedings. Historically, they make up the majority of possession claims in the court (58% of all landlord possession proceedings between January and March 2020 were against social housing tenants). It can’t be taken for granted that they will be unwilling to evict tenants in arrears.
In the past, social landlords rarely used Ground 8 (the mandatory rent arrears ground) to evict their tenants (their old regulator’s guidance advised strongly against it). But as social landlords have arguably become more commercially motivated, so has their propensity to use mandatory eviction grounds against low income and benefit claiming tenants.
This crisis provides an opportunity for social landlords to change their approach. We decided to find out if they’d take it.
Greater Manchester social landlords: make your pledge!
Over the last two months GMLC has carried out research into the social housing sector to investigate how Social Housing Providers have changed their policies to minimise evictions and to ask them to pledge not to use ‘mandatory grounds’. We approached 23 social housing landlord across Greater Manchester. In two rounds of emails sent by our campaigns team, we asked for a response to two things:
- A pledge not to use Ground 8 or Section 21 to evict tenants with arrears from the Covid pandemic (click here to see the pledge email we sent).
- A Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking a series of questions (click here to see the full list of what we asked).
The only Social Housing Provider who responded to our pledge was an Arms Length Management Company for the Council, not allowed to use Ground 8 or Section 21 anyway.
Six of the total claimed not to be classified as ‘public authorities’ and therefore not subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. They refused to answer our enquiries. A further 13 failed to reply at all.*
One social landlord (responsible for 35,000 homes) also maintained they were also not obliged to share all the information we asked for, but agreed to give some information. In respect of Ground 8, they said that they are committed to offering assistance to their tenants and had not carried out any Ground 8 evictions so far during the pandemic, but also admitted they would “use ground 8 evictions for efficiency”.
We have not yet found any Greater Manchester Social Housing Providers willing to publicly commit to us, even in the aftermath of the pandemic, to protect their tenants by voluntarily suspending their use of mandatory grounds.
Many people have highlighted the loss of accountability caused by the transfer of social housing stock from local authorities to housing associations. Such transfers have also made tenants more vulnerable to eviction, since council housing providers cannot use mandatory grounds, which removes the risk of providers changing their policies on these evictions for “efficiency”.
Surely Greater Manchester’s Social Housing Providers can do better than this?
*In 2018, the Government announced a review of social housing regulation to look at how transparency and accountability for tenants could be further improved, but there appear to have been no advances on this since, despite support from MPs in 2019. It appears from our research that Social Housing Providers continue to refuse to answer FOI requests with little enforcement power available to stop them.
With research input by our campaigns volunteer Hoejong Jeong.
If you are facing eviction or homelessness as a result of the Covid pandemic, or for any other reason, please contact us for legal advice using the Help & Advice links above.