For weeks, newspapers and campaigners have been warning of a looming evictions crisis. Of landlords free again, as of this month, to set the bailiffs on their tenants. Of hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes. Of an entire market teetering on a “cliff edge”. A terrifying prospect – except it doesn’t lie in the distance. An evictions crisis is already here and it is ripping through people’s lives.
That is not what I expected when I began writing this column. I was looking for signs of a storm brewing now that the evictions ban in England is over and it’s legal again for landlords to send in bailiffs to turf out tenants. Then I headed to Hackney, east London, to one of the Victorian townhouses lined along a roaring main road. Marching to the top, I walked into a flat whose tenants didn’t feel protected by the ban.
Let’s call the couple inside John and Radha. He takes big, geometric photos of buildings, while she collects linocuts. They both love cities – the wilder and more various the better. In their 50s and 70s, they don’t fit the cliches about “generation rent”, yet have rented for two decades along this one road. They’ve been in this neat, airy one-bedroom apartment for the past seven years, paying £1,300 a month. “I consider it an honour to have been a custodian of this neighbourhood,” says John, and tells of chasing after a handbag thief, only to wind up in hospital.
Recently, he has come to rely on medics. In summer 2019, he caught chickenpox in one eye and was prescribed steroid drops. As the first wave of Covid hit, the hospital halted face-to-face appointments. Without checkups, John developed serious glaucoma and went blind in his left eye. Doctors can’t say if he will ever see with it again. They performed emergency surgery just before Christmas, sending him home with orders to take it easy. At a point when he needed stability, his housing situation collapsed.
When the pandemic broke out, the couple’s landlord, James Smith (I won’t name him as we are not naming the tenants), worried that house prices might crash and his flat could suffer what he described in an email to me a “considerable loss in value”. He wasn’t the only property owner worrying in that time of confusion, but arguably any fall would have to be enormous for him to lose out: the Land Registry shows that Smith bought the flat in 2003 for £162,000; today, similar properties nearby sell for almost three times as much. He put it on the market, agreeing that in any sale John and Radha could stay six months before leaving (from August 2020, the government ruled that landlords had to give tenants that much notice). Although the couple were shielding, they agreed to the viewings. But when in mid-February Smith tried to arrange another appointment, John didn’t reply. And Smith reports, his estate agents complained of “no calls being returned to arrange access”. John didn’t feel well, he said, and had a lot on his mind.
Smith was frustrated. “Have to assume you are refusing access for viewings,” he wrote. “That leaves eviction the only option. However unwell you are, no communication is the worst option for you and everyone else.” John replied, agreeing to the viewings and asking for some small repairs, but Smith denies receiving the email.
What had been an amicable relationship, in which the rent didn’t go up for seven years and the tenants barely complained about a thing, quickly broke down. Smith emailed and called a number of times. Radha said that when his name flashed up on their phones, “my heart would jump out of my chest”. They usually didn’t pick up and their lack of response spurred a vexed Smith to send erratic and exasperated messages. He would at some points express concern over John’s health and at another castigate them for not responding: “You have taken over control of someone else’s property” – making the couple sound like illegal squatters, rather than tenants who since 2014 have paid him well over £100,000.
One Saturday in mid-May, he asked Radha if the couple wanted to renew the tenancy, saying that if he didn’t hear by first thing on Monday “the UK’s main evictions company will take over from there”. Last week, he forwarded John an exchange with a law firm, with the subject line “Hackney Eviction – Step 1”. John didn’t reply. Smith needed to carry out an electrical inspection, John kept asking for some small repairs, and neither side got what they wanted.
Despite these threats, Smith has never served notice, let alone begun legal proceedings. He said to me “in exasperation, with no end to the dispute in sight”, eviction appeared to be the only way to resolution. He said he wanted to “end the … misunderstanding” and “restore relations”. Yet such is the powerlessness of renters in London, who have less legal protection than their counterparts in Lithuania or Leith or pretty much anywhere else in Europe, that John and Radha are already braced to be thrown out. They are already talking about backup plans and moving out. Their panic is such that Radha sometimes vomits with anxiety.
Since February, John has developed severe psoriasis, the pain of which rules his days and gives him sleepless nights, and for which he goes into hospital three times a week. There they coat him with paraffin wax, then coal tar, then cream, in treatments that take four hours and leave him “emotionally knackered”.
Psoriasis is often triggered or made worse by stress, and Radha said: “I need to support John and protect his health.” She is already scouting out other accommodation. They stand to lose their home not because they fancy a move – given the seriousness of John’s conditions, that’s the last thing they want. It will be because they feel they have no choice.
Call this a shadow eviction, of a kind that has gone unremarked in the media and in politics but is as much a theme of this pandemic as soaraway house prices. At the London Renters Union, Michael Deas notes a large and growing number of tenants in much worse situations than John and Radha. They’re being forced out by “harassment from their landlords, threats of violence and sometimes actual violence. Many of these are illegal evictions and hardly anyone knows about them.” And the landlords making them obviously didn’t care a fig for any government ban.
“Something real is happening, and it’s happening to hundreds of thousands of people,” says David Renton, housing barrister and author of new book Jobs and Homes: Stories of the Law in Lockdown. “The mere threat of an eviction is forcing them to leave, without any need for court action.”
To see what he means, compare two key bits of evidence. First, the number of landlords taking tenants to court in England and Wales has collapsed, even though the courts have been open for business for months. This looks as if the ban is working – until you look at the data on how many tenants are telling their local councils in England that they are homeless, where numbers are only slightly below pre-lockdown levels.
These are pieces, rather than the whole jigsaw, as you might expect in a country that demands you get a licence to watch the BBC on your TV but keeps no national records of who is renting out what properties to whom. Still, the picture that emerges is of landlords skirting the formal processes of eviction even while distressed renters are telling local authority officers that they’ve been made homeless.
This is what the evictions crisis looks like right now, unnoticed and undiscussed in this strange, sunny interlude between lockdown’s end and the abolition of furlough in a country whistling its way to some pretence of normality. Now add to that the slow resumption of normal evictions business, under a government that burns £5bn on stamp duty holidays to overheat the housing market while doing nothing to help tenants who have fallen behind on their rent. Something is very wrong with this picture.