Five of England’s leading letting agents actively discriminate against tenants on housing benefit, according to a new report by Shelter and the National Housing Federation (NHF).
In an undercover investigation carried out by Mystery Shoppers Ltd. 149 regional letting agent branches were called by researchers posing as prospective tenants. A shocking one in ten had a branch policy not to let to anyone on housing benefit, regardless of whether they could afford the rent.
The worst offender out of the six big brands investigated was Haart, with an outright ban on housing benefit tenants in a third of the branches called (8 out of 25). The only letting agent not to have any bans in place, was Hunters (0 out of 25).
The research also exposes the wider uphill struggle faced by housing benefit tenants. Almost half (48%) of branches called said they had no suitable homes or landlords willing to let to someone on housing benefit.
Appalled by the findings, the two housing organisations have joined forces to urge letting agents and landlords to remove these bans, which they argue are both grossly unfair and likely to be unlawful.
The failure of successive governments to build enough social housing means that there are an estimated 1.64 million adults who now rely on housing benefit to help with expensive private rents. The majority are women – especially single mothers with childcare responsibilities. People who receive disability benefits are also three times more likely to need a housing benefit top-up.
Consequently, under the Equality Act 2010, letting agents who reject housing benefit tenants outright could be at risk of breaking the law because of indirect discrimination against women and disabled people.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said “This ugly undercurrent of discrimination is wreaking havoc on hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. ‘No DSS’ is an outdated and outrageous example of blatant prejudice.
“Private renting is now so expensive that many people simply can’t get by without some housing benefit, even if they’re working. At Shelter we hear from families - who’ve always paid their rent - being pushed to breaking point after having the door repeatedly slammed shut on them just because they need housing benefit.
“Rejecting all housing benefit tenants is morally bankrupt, and because these practices overwhelmingly impact women and disabled people, they could be unlawful. That’s why we’re urging all landlords and letting agents to get rid of housing benefit bans, and treat people fairly on a case by case basis.”
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents social landlords of around 6 million people, said “Many housing associations were set up in the 50s and 60s to house people who could find nowhere else to live due to blatant racism from private landlords and letting agents who told them “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. Letting agents should be ashamed that discrimination is still happening today in the form of an outright ban on people simply because they depend on housing benefit. We know this is purely based on prejudice.
“The homeless shelters and charities housing vulnerable people that we represent, find it increasingly impossible to help their residents move in to their own independent home. Often, nowhere in the private rented sector will take someone on benefits and the chronic shortage of social housing means often none of this is available. Landlords and letting agents must see sense and assess people on a case by case basis, whilst Government urgently need to invest in the building of new social homes.”