Ben Reeve Lewis looks at the proposal to end section 21 from a different viewpoint.
Landlords under attack
For the past three years, small private landlords have been under attack by the government.
Tax breaks were the first sign, then we had the Deregulation Act 2015 making it difficult for an amateur landlord to set up an AST without a law degree and now the proposed abolition of s21 – though, don’t hold your breath on that one.
Then you have Heather Wheeler talking about how the PRS is an important component of the housing landscape, whilst systematically attacking it.
I use the term “Systematically” as a lazy convenience to be honest. I think there is little that is systematic going on in a government consumed by Brexit alone. Everything else being a side-show as we slide over Niagara Falls in a rubber ring to a cheering crowd.
Part of a broader picture
But the now mooted abolition of s21 didn’t come out of nowhere. It is part of a much broader picture coming into focus.
- The activities of Extinction Rebellion,
- Widespread reports that 1% of the British population owns 50% of the land
- The yellow vest movement in France protesting at Macron’s announcement that money will be available to rebuild Notre Dame when a week before they were being told there was no money in the coffers
The kinds of disgruntled news stories that were once the preserve of a range of activist’s meetings is suddenly on the 6 ‘o’ clock news as mainstream concepts that are talked about down the pub.
Austerity and its ugly sister inequality is now a hot topic and small PRS landlords are caught up in the trending furore.
It doesn’t matter that many small landlords don’t make as much as people think they do, its about the perception of power. This is what is driving the new attacks on s21. Landlords and private renting are merely being sucked into the milieu of broader international arguments about fairness and oppression.
The Overton Window Concept
A colleague recently introduced me to the concept of the ‘Overton window’, a social science model of how public focus and discussion can move once radical and unthinkable ideas from way outside of the frame of discourse, to closer inside the frame and become matters of concern to the populace, ending up as acceptable and often government policy.
Even 6 months ago talk of the abolition of s21 was well outside of the Overton Window frame. Then Labour espoused it and as a result, it had to move closer into the frame, even if only to be covered on Breakfast News, where politicians and landlord groups were forced to discuss their opposition in public.
Next thing you know, it moves from tapping lightly on the glass, a subject only of interest to people involved with it, to becoming a loudly announced, shattering slam dunk.
What took everybody by surprise was the speed at which the Overton Window swung its focus. It’s my view that this reason sits outside of day to day landlord and tenant issues but is part of people’s wider geopolitical concerns at this point in time/ Of which Brexit, the Yellow vests, a resurgent far right and Trump are prime examples.
A growing public concern with the inequality that is being driven by 10 years of austerity measures and nightly news articles and social media coverage on similar concerns in countries around the world, albeit with different focus’s of anger.
Pitchforks on the horizon
An article being cited right across the internet in recent weeks is this one from Politico magazine written by Billionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, where he says of his own class of super-rich Plutocrats:-
If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out.
Of course, he is talking of bigger fish than just landlord and tenant stuff – and you may ask “what has this got to do with me and my two properties?”
Well, look to complaints of rising rents soaking up families income, benefit caps, no-fault evictions, young people priced out of home ownership, homelessness. All localised components of the international movement against inequality.
These topics are now becoming part of mainstream discourse. In other words, they are moving into the frame of the Overton Window, from radical and unacceptable to sensible and popular.
The corollary of this is that what was once accepted viewpoints move out of the frame and become the new unacceptable ideas.
Smoking in public places, not wearing a seatbelt, the Black and White Minstrel Show, all once normal and acceptable in British society, even within my lifetime are now firmly outside of the Overton frame.
After 30 years, society and the lap-dog, vote-chasing politicians are finally waking up to the idea that a system that allows for a landlord to take away someone’s home when they have done nothing wrong might not be acceptable and it is being talked about instead of just laughed out of the room.
Its all about perception and Fergus Wilson
Forget arguments about landlords using s21 when tenants are in arrears and forget the fact that you personally might never evict a tenant for no reason, I’m talking about the system that allows for it to happen.
I’m not talking about any particular Landlord Law Blog reader and I’m not talking about your intentions, I’m talking about perception in the public’s eye.
Fergus Wilson has become a handy poster boy for the public’s perception of private landlords. I have said elsewhere on the blogosphere that he isn’t representative of most landlords I know and he also isn’t representative of ANY rogue/criminal landlords that I’ve met.
He is merely a pantomime villain, like Captain Hook, or Jose Mourinho, that everyone Can boo and hiss at.
BUT, but to repeat, it’s about perception – and for many people, Fergus Wilson represents a certain aspect of the power imbalance and a perceived attitude.
Flames on the fire
I recently read this quote about a survey on the abolition of s21 being conducted by the RLA:-
We are giving landlords the chance to shape their rights to repossess properties.
That a landlord has a legal “Right to repossess properties” is not the issue. It’s about throwing fat on the flames of public attitudes at a time when what you really need is a fire extinguisher.
In landlord and tenant terms, public discourse is moving away from the last 30 years of perceived normalcy and once radical ideas are now taking centre stage.
The Unacceptable is now acceptable so be careful what you say
Before the Housing Act, 1988 was ushered in, Rent Act controls and security were normal and acceptable policy. Conversely, eradicating security and lifting rent control were radical and unacceptable.
If The Overton Window model and comments of billionaires like Nick Hanauer are on the money, then the landlord community will need to think about comments like that of the RLA and strive to build links to address perceived concerns of inequality and unfairness among the tenant community.
Defending a position needs more tact and diplomacy than ridiculing the opposition.