Fair Housing for Frome bloggers can’t be the only ones scratching around for positive news arising during the pandemic. With more Covid-related restrictions looming, the effects on the local community are being felt keenly and in relation to housing, the search for rental accommodation locally is highly competitive. Local letting agents tell us of almost unprecedented numbers of responses to each advertised rental property and our own Frome Noticeboard on Facebook is full of people desperate for property in Frome to rent.
An event in housing that will be seen as positive by many came as a headline news story back in July but still hasn’t gained enough publicity to be widely talked about. The housing and homelessness charity Shelter won a court ruling which deemed it unlawful for a letting agent to discriminate against an applicant, known as Jane, who was a single parent with disabilities and was in receipt of benefits.
The basis for the Shelter court case was that the refusal to let a property to the tenant concerned was a breach of the Equality Act 2010 on grounds of gender and disability. According to Shelter ‘Analysis of official figures from the Department for Work and Pensions reveals that 95% of single parents receiving housing benefit are female….As well as women being disproportionately affected, our research also suggests that people with disabilities are more likely to receive housing benefit.’
A victory for the Shelter campaign then but also for anyone who has been refused a rental viewing on the basis that their rent is being partially or fully paid for by the benefit system.
Shelter has been campaigning for 2 years for a ‘No DSS’ ban so that every person looking to rent accommodation should be referenced on their ability to pay the rent, not where that rent comes from. The pressure on the lettings industry to scrap benefit prejudice also comes from property portal Zoopla which banned adverts that carry benefit discrimination in 2019. For a property platform reliant on estate and letting agents’ business, to lead the way on an issue which its advertisers are dragging their heels on is perhaps a sign that the mood is changing.
Shelter has since brought a second, similar case in September, backing a man with disabilities, Stephen Tyler
who had been made homeless with his wife and four children due to being evicted by a landlord who refused to make disability adaptations to the property. An estate agency refused to show Tyler the three properties he wanted to view as he was in receipt of housing benefit and the agency had a ‘No DSS policy’. Incidentally, as the department of social security no longer exists, the term is out of date but still used by agents as shorthand for refusing those in receipt of any benefits.
We interviewed Frome letting agents Harlows on this subject following a Facebook post by the company which highlighted benefit discrimination locally.
The agency had just secured a property for an applicant who was furloughed due to the lockdown and expecting a baby. She reported having been refused viewings on multiple properties in Frome because she would need to rely on benefits to pay the rent. Here is an extract from Harlow’s post:
“Since finding out my landlord was selling her property and I’d have three months to find somewhere new for myself and my unborn baby, I have been left incredibly concerned (and understandably very stressed) at the amount of discrimination I faced from the majority of letting agents I approached locally, to the point where some would point blank refuse to even let me view their properties. This was always after I had explained my current and future situation, with regards to bringing up a baby and therefore not working and having to be in receipt of housing benefit.”
When asked what made them shine a light on this issue on their social media, Harlows’ lettings administrator Laura Coleman explained how the woman, known as Ms S, had been desperate for somewhere to live when she contacted their agency and Laura had been saddened by her plight. She said “Its something that we feel very passionate about… we just felt that other people needed to hear about it and what we do as a company and how we don’t discriminate. We get to know everybody on an individual basis, really talk to people. Everyone is an individual, but I think it’s easier for other companies not to get involved [with benefit recipients] because it’s not an easy application for referencing purposes.”
Harlows’ owner Lisa Cooke says that although the company has noticed demand for property rising and certainly a big increase in calls following their post about benefit discrimination, they still aren’t getting reports of redundancies or rent arrears from their tenant base. Lisa commented, “I think that moving forward in the next few months then perhaps that will be a problem because things are changing all the time. People are coming to the end of their furlough and then they worry about being made redundant. Jobs no longer feel secure and then no one knows where to turn, that’s the issue.”
As the benefit discrimination campaign is gaining momentum now it has had a couple of court wins, will people in receipt of benefits start to see more doors opening to them? There is a chain of blame in place, it appears as to who is keeping those doors locked. Some landlords report that they are advised against accepting housing benefit by their letting agents, some say that their mortgage lenders or insurers are putting the restrictions in place.
Lenders are now appearing to distance themselves from those policies so the shift to a fairer letting system may be on the horizon as people in all areas of the industry take another look at what makes a good tenant.