Landlords who say 'no DSS' breaking equality laws

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education and social affairs reporter

  • Published
Rosie and her son
Image caption,
Rosie was one of many women locked out of desirable areas because of agents' DSS bans

The thousands of lettings agents and landlords around the country who reject housing benefit claimants could be flouting equality laws, due to a recent legal case.

The widespread practice has led to "no-go zones" for those on lower incomes - especially in desirable residential areas.

But single mother Rosie Keogh won compensation for sex discrimination from a lettings agency that refused to consider her as a tenant because she was on state benefit.

The cleaner and former paralegal successfully argued that blanket bans on benefit claimants indirectly discriminated against women, especially single women.

This is because they are proportionately more likely to be claiming housing benefit than single men, according to official figures.

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Rosie's attempt to rent a property in a smart area of Birmingham in May 2016 was blocked when the lettings agent found she would pay some of the rent via housing benefit.

'Second-class citizen'

The agent told her it would not be proceeding with her application for a property in Kings Heath before it had looked into her individual circumstances or assessed how reliable a tenant she would be.

She had been living in the same property for 11 years with the rent being paid in full every time.

After a letter of complaint was dismissed by the agents, the mother of one issued a claim for discrimination in the county court.

"I felt something had to be done to challenge it. I was motivated by anger at such inequitable practice," said Rosie.

"It made me feel like a second-class citizen.

Image source, Alamy

"You are being treated differently - and it's women and women with children who are bearing the brunt of this because they need to work part-time."

And Rosie is not alone. There are whole areas of towns and cities in England that have become virtual no-go zones for people on housing benefit because lettings agents and landlords are unwilling to deal with them.

A survey of 1,137 private landlords for housing charity Shelter in 2017 found that 43% had an outright ban on letting to such claimants. A further 18% preferred not to let to them. And an investigation by the BBC last year found many landlords prefer to let to families with pets than those on benefits.

Rosie was supported in her case by Shelter, whose legal officer Rose Arnall said: "By applying a blanket policy they are actually preventing good tenants from accessing the private rented sector.

"Women are more likely to be caring for children and therefore working part-time and are therefore more likely to top up their income by claiming housing benefit."

Because of the lack of available social housing, more than a fifth of those renting privately are relying on housing benefit either wholly or partly to cover their rent, according to 2017 figures.

Eighteen months after Rosie first began her fightback, lettings agent Nicholas George admitted indirect discrimination on the grounds of her sex, settling out of court with £2,000 compensation.

She also had help from the Bar Pro Bono Unit with the case who found a barrister willing to help for free.

Robert Brown gave advice and drew up the consent order which was witnessed by a judge at Birmingham County Court.

Although not setting a legally binding precedent, the case established that the practice could be considered indirect sexual discrimination.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said private renting was so expensive that many people could not get by without housing benefit, even if they were working.

"Our advisers repeatedly hear from desperate mothers battling to find someone willing to let to them, in spite of being able to pay the rent.

"We are urging all landlords and letting agents to get rid of 'no DSS' policies, and treat people fairly on a case-by-case basis."

Chris Norris, head of policy at the National Landlords Association, agreed there was no place for discrimination on the basis of someone's gender.

"Cases like this highlight the very worst of what a minority of renters have to put up with when looking to secure a home in the private rented sector."


He added: "The number of landlords willing to rent to housing benefit tenants has fallen dramatically over the last few years because cuts to welfare and problems with the universal credit system are making it more and more difficult for anyone in receipt of housing support to pay their rent on time and sustain long-term tenancies."

Labour's housing spokesman John Healey said government cuts to housing benefit had stripped away the safety net for families and led to "no-go zones" for families on low and middle incomes.

"These short-sighted decisions have made landlords more wary of tenants claiming housing benefit and so made discrimination more likely."

A government spokesman said: "It's wrong to treat someone differently because they are claiming a benefit.

"The majority of claimants are comfortable managing their money but we are increasing support to help people who need it to stay on top of their payments."

He added that from April, people in receipt of housing benefit would receive two weeks' rent when they moved on to universal credit and landlords could now apply to have the benefit paid directly to them if their tenants were more than two months in arrears.

But one landlord, Tom Black, said his landlord insurance prohibited him from taking tenants that are on housing benefits when their tenancy starts.

Another said: "As a council accredited landlord who trains others to become accredited,‎ I can safely say that the "no DSS" is not down to landlord preference or discrimination... it's entirely down to (a.) mortgage terms and (b.) severe delays in the claimants HB claim, universal credit policy to pay claimants directly into their bank account.

"We personally could fill our houses 10 times over if we could rent to DSS as our phones never stop ringing, day and night, whenever we advertise a vacant one."

Here's what you've been saying about this issue:

Sarah from Andover

I am a mother of 3 children, ages 3, 7 and 11. I have had to private rent for the last 8 years due to the lack of council properties available. I have moved 7 times within those 8 years and each time to a completely different area because of lack of estate agents and landlords who will except housing benefit. We have had to move due to landlords no longer wanting us after the benefit cuts, and also bad landlords who would not keep the house together. Due to be refused a tenancy over and over again so many times due to being on housing benefit, we have had to look further afield. We have moved from Southampton to Eastleigh to Gosport to Andover. My daughter who is aged 11 has been very affected by this after now being in her 8th school and this has effected her education and her mental health, due to constantly having to make new friends and losing many every time. This is all because there are so so many landlords who will not accept housing benefit even though we are great tenants and always pay our rent on time as it is our priority. This needs to come to a stop. We do not feel safe in any property. We have been faced with homelessness previously due to not finding anywhere and even when we Have, the estate agents feel they can charge hundreds of pounds more due to our circumstances which does not make any sense as we have a low income so we are forced to be homeless if we can't pay or find a suitable guarantor. These guarantors that they want have to be very specific and earning so much money but unfortunateley not everyone knows someone that is employed and earning so much money.

David from Birmingham

My family and I have been trying to move house for over a year now. We currently rent privately and have been keeping up with our rent at this property for over 7 years. I search online every day for properties, from Cornwall, right up to the Scottish Borders. I am lucky if I find 1 property a month that will accept DSS and be in a suitable area for us to raise our children. Being so few of these properties, they are snapped up almost amediately. People on benefits are being viewed as a nuisance risk and are being pushed into inner city areas blighted by crime. The children are being punished because their parents can't work, or have a job with a low income. How can that be fair?

Lisa from Middlesbrough

Welcome to my world!! It is hardly news that pretty much all Lettings Agents have 'No DSS' on their advertisements. The other way they stop Housing Benefit recipients from renting are - 'HB accepted with a guarantor' (I don't know anyone who could do this for me) or, the absolute doozie 'HB considered, please ask' (this means, Housing Benefit considered if you can pay six months' rent up front, plus their fee and a deposit - if you had that much spare, you wouldn't be claiming Housing Benefit!). I have battled to house my family, as, even when I was well enough to work, I needed a HB top-up, as I'm a full-time carer for 2 of my adult children, I can only work part-time. If I'm honest, I have lied to agents in the past, just to get a roof over our heads.

Stephen from Birmingham

I am a wheelchair user and any property I phone up and tell then this and I'm on housing benefits it's a straight no not even considered. I arranged a viewing at a house in risinghurst, oxford and got as far as signing documents. Landlord was happy to be housing a mother and two children (aswel as the family dog) but as soon as I mentioned housing benefits paying a small fraction of the cost, the entire agreement shut down and the agent became frustrated that I hadn't told her prior to viewing.

Samantha from Oxford

It was embarrassing and upsetting. We are stuck in a privately rented property that is much too small for us because nobody will give us the benefit of the doubt. If we are asked to vacate this property I have no faith that we will be able to find anywhere else to live. Despite that we have paid our current landlord every month for 11 years, and that upon graduation, I will be earning a more than reasonable wage and the benefits will only be temporary. It's degrading and frustrating. The sooner this is (rightly) viewed as discrimination, the better.

Robert from London

I was denied even inquiring about looking at private flats in London simply due to claiming housing benefit. Surprisingly, my wage is above the national average just over 29,000, but in London and having a child, this still entitled me and my partner to around £440 per month housing benefit. I tried to explain to the letting agent I am in full time, contracted employment, and anyone with a child earning under £35,000 per annum will be receiving housing benefit of some sort in London and they said it didn't matter. This isn't just blocking women from renting it's blocking entire families.

Sheila from Isle of Wight

My daughter was a blame-free tenant for 10 years in one property from which she was given notice for no reason. Despite numerous letters of appeal and requests for conciliatory meetings, the landlords did not answer any of her correspondence. She could not even get them to give her a written reference. She sought replacement accommodation for herself (a lone parent) and her two little children aged 6 and 3, for six months before finding a landlord/ estate agent who would take her (on housing benefit) with my husband as guarantor. The whole experience has not only caused her great stress and anxiety and has led to an exacerbation of her chronic depression, but has also affected her six-year old who has become angry and withdrawn and fearful they will be evicted again from their new home. The stipulation "no HB, Children or Pets" was appended to most of the rental properties on offer. It reminded me of London in the 50s and 60s. "No blacks or Irish."

James from Brighton

I am disabled and I have to be on housing benefits. It is virtually impossible to find a place that accepts housing benefits and those that do accept it require a guarantor with unacceptable requirements. I was made homeless and spent time sleeping rough when my landlord of my previous place decided to renovate and increase rent and price me out of the place and so he asked me to leave. I had paid rent in full for the previous 8 years with him no problem and have never had a problem. I am now stuck in a council home with no chance of ever moving or improving the place where I live. The equality act should account for disabled people on housing benefits being discriminated against. Since I could not go to a letting agent I tried to rent a place from a landlord personally advertising and renting their property, going that route I was also told on a number of occasion that their buy-to-let mortgages stated they could not let out to people on housing benefits. This shows the banks are also discriminating against disabled and people on housing benefit. Is it just because of a few rotten apples spoiling the bunch for the rest of us? Where and when does this discrimination originate from? The 70's or 80's?

The fact letting agents call it DSS makes me think so, it hasn't been called that for decades. What are the statistic for rent arrears with people on housing benefit versus those on jobs? What about those with disabilities? With JSA type benefits allowing housing benefits they can be stopped and rent arrears can accrue if you miss an appointment, a horrible position to have that held over your head, however, if disabilities grant housing benefit, your disability is not going to suddenly disappear and your housing benefit with it. It is blatant discrimination against people with disabilities and those on housing benefit, it disgusts me. Renting decisions should be based on your previous history and if it is good you should not automatically be excluded or need a guarantor.

Frank from Stratford-Upon-Avon

Housing Benefit is just that. For Housing. Landlords would accept benefit tenants if rent was paid directly to Landlords with a guarantee that it would start at the beginning of a tenancy and be guaranteed to continue. The reality is that once a tenant is is a property, the assessments can take many weeks. The slightest error by a tenant means the application has to start again, meaning 6-8 weeks delay. The Council isn't concerned as the applicant isn't homeless. This is the reality, while of course a Landlord still has to pay his mortgage. I just get tired of the ill informed comments by Shelter. How many properties to HB tenants do they rent out? How many properties do they rent to anyone? Millions in income. So why don't they put their income to good use, and help solve the problem. Yes, there are bad Landlords, but the vast majority are good, and wish for good, long term tenants. Conversely, there are good HB tenants, but equally others who are not..

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