In some ways, you don’t need to know anything more about the current state of the rental property market than the fact that “no fault” evictions exist, whereby a private landlord can boot out a tenant without reason under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. They can do it within the strict terms of the law or, if untroubled by conscience (but who can imagine a landlord in such a state?), issue them in the hope of unsettling the tenant so much that they leave without checking their rights and/or thinking it’s worth the fight. But even without one being issued, the mere fact that they exist clouds a renter’s peace of mind. It is a prime marker of how weighted in one party’s favour our law – and our culture – is over the other.
So to BBC Three’s four-part series Evicted, following a number of twentysomething workers in various cities after they, through no fault of their own – it’s right there in the name! – are served eviction notices and have two months to find alternative accommodation. They represent different slices of generation rent but what they all have in common is that they are employed, paying their rent on time, have little chance of avoiding losing their current home and virtually no hope of ever owning their own place.
Personal trainer Dawn is a mother of two in a three-bed house in the West Midlands; games room manager Thai is single and in a studio flat in Bristol; online food delivery coordinator Tobias has a single room in a barely functional, barely converted warehouse in north London – whose communal sitting room is literally an arm-span wide and whose shared facilities have only recently acquired hot running water. We also follow Danielle, who works three jobs to afford part of a house in Lewisham, south-east London, for which she has a good deal, secured during Covid, of £550 a month. Were she to have to move, one of her options would be a bunk-bedded room in a shared house for nearly twice that. I lived in Lewisham most of my life. I can assure you there isn’t a room in the entire borough that’s worth that, let alone one that can only fit bunk beds in.
In Manchester chef Dan and his girlfriend are two of many tenants being evicted from a damp-ridden block of flats whose vacated units are then being refurbished and put back on the market – for twice the price. “Demoralising”, Dan calls the experience of being served notice and trying to find a comparable alternative to what they have now in the city centre. And, much fruitless searching later, “savage”.
Later in the series we meet a trio of graduate friends in Brighton who are being evicted before their six-month lease is up due to a tiny oversight in the paperwork. Because of this technicality, one has to move in with her boyfriend’s parents and another is reduced to sofa-surfing – a night or two here and there with different friends, with all the embarrassment, exhaustion and anxiety that brings.
Generally, BBC Three’s way is not to drill down into issues but to animate them via individual stories told by people in the thick of it. This is what it does here – as ever a little too choppily for my taste, but then I am old enough to belong to the last generation that could hope to own property without inheriting it. Statistics appear to the side of the screen to underline what Thai, Dawn et al are going through: for example, we learn that bailiff evictions from private rentals have doubled in the last year as we see Dawn waiting in a cafe for hers to turn up – the council have advised her not to leave voluntarily, since otherwise she won’t qualify for their temporary accommodation. But the focus is on the people.
Broad-brush causes are given for the “perfect storm” that is causing rates of homelessness and precarity to spike (rising mortgage costs for landlords, fewer properties to rent and so on), but there is no space – apart from the subjects’ vague mentions of “the government” – to look at the economic and policy decisions that have led us into this mire. Which means, also, that there are no possible solutions considered. Thai gets involved with a local group campaigning on behalf of renters later in the series, which is interesting, but not really followed up.
Still, it does its job of making the issue live and real. Perhaps it might even reach people who still think that if young people stop buying coffees and avocado toast they will be able to pay 66% rent increases like the one Thai is facing – or that Danielle could take on a fourth job if she really wanted to keep her tiny house-portion that much. We can but hope.
Evicted aired on BBC Three and is available on BBC iPlayer.