By Amany Jabir
Last month, the commonly used blanket ban of landlords and landladies against benefit recipients was ruled unlawful by a county court in York. This was due to the discriminatory nature of the policy against those most likely to depend on benefits – women and disabled tenants.
The ban used to have a hugely detrimental effect on the poorest and most vulnerable of our society. It was referred to by property owners as "No DSS", an archaic reference to the former Department for Social Security. Having ceased to exist in 2001, this illustrates how old and longstanding the issue is. It is believed the policy has been preventing hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, from accessing affordable accommodation.
While the court’s decision is to be celebrated as it confirms the discriminatory nature and unlawfulness of the policy, there remains many ways for landlords and landladies to avoid offering tenancies to benefit recipients. In practice, the latter will find it just as difficult to access the private property market. With the dire state of social housing in England, property owners’ reluctance to accept benefit recipients as tenants greatly increases the risks of homelessness for women and disabled individuals.
The successful applicant in the case was a disabled single mother of two. She was served an eviction notice by her landlord at the time, giving her a mere 2 months to find an alternative home for her children and herself. When she managed to find a suitable and affordable property, she was not given the chance to apply as the letting agents ‘have had a policy of not accepting housing benefit tenants for years’. This left the disabled mother and her children homeless.
The mother was encouraged to bring the legal action by Shelter —a famous charity that works at ending homelessness and bad housing— as part of its ‘End DSS Discrimination’ campaign.
Despite the policy having been an issue for years, this was the very first time that a UK court considered its lawfulness; the ruling was most awaited.
Thankfully, District Judge Victoria Elizabeth Mark agreed that the policy unlawfully and indirectly discriminated on the grounds of sex and disability, contrary to sections 19 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010.
The Act holds it unlawful to discriminate, directly or indirectly, on criteria such as gender, disability, or race. As women and disabled people are more likely to receive housing benefit, the letting agents’ policy indirectly discriminated against them.
The discriminatory nature of the blanket ban
When looking at Shelter’s research, it is indeed evident that women and disabled individuals are more likely to receive housing benefits and are, therefore, disproportionately discriminated against by the policy.
Taking, for example, single adult households: Shelter found that 53.1% of women renting privately claim housing benefit compared to 34% of men. Likewise, 44.6% of households claiming a disability-related benefit also claim housing benefit compared to 15.1% of households who do not.
Although it is difficult to obtain exact figures showing the number of benefit recipients who have been prevented from accessing suitable accommodation due to the policy, a survey conducted by YouGov in December 2019 and January 2020 found that nearly two-thirds of private property owners either do not, or prefer not to, let to people on housing benefits. Moreover, any benefits recipient would confirm the extreme difficulty of finding a landlord or landlady that accepts them as tenants.
Shelter celebrated the ‘momentous ruling’ as one which will send a clear message that property owners who continue to refuse to rent to housing benefit recipients are acting unlawfully and risk legal action. Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, stated the ruling ‘should be the nail in the coffin for “No DSS” discrimination’.
It is, however, unlikely that much will change in practice since property owners can, and do, give other reasons to continue refusing to take benefits recipients as a tenant. Some common excuses include that the applicant was too late in contacting the property owner or letting agent, or that there is a waiting list and the benefits recipient applicant must be selected. Needless to say, they almost always are not. Sadly, the differences the ruling will bring are likely limited – property owners will no longer advertise their properties as ‘No DSS’, nor can they refuse an application on the basis that the applicant receives benefits.
The dire state of housing for benefit recipients
For benefit recipients, the housing situation is just as dire.
With the economic impact of the pandemic, an increasing number of people are unable to afford mortgages even though they are employed. Thus the need to rent properties dramatically increases the competition amongst prospective tenants. Evidently, employed and wealthier applicants are always favoured over those who receive benefits.
Moreover, it usually is a challenge in itself for benefit recipients to find a suitable property that is affordable given the soaring prices, with only a handful of properties on the market being within their budget.
Indeed, housing benefit only covers part of the rent. To encourage benefit recipients to go private, the Government introduced ‘Discretionary Housing Payment’ (‘DHP’): an allowance for benefit recipients that covers the shortfall between the rent cost and the tenant’s housing benefit.
However, the allowance only lasts from 3 months to 6 months, or up to 1-year maximum. As a result, those on benefits cannot afford the rent once the DHP ends and are served an eviction notice from the landlord or landlady. They then must find a new property.
This leaves little options for applicants as many social housing policies state that the renter must not have any rent arrears.
For those who have cleared their rent and are, therefore, eligible for social housing, the state of the latter has become so dire that applicants are put on a bidding system by their local council. They bid for properties for years before being offered any – applicants often being quoted a ten-year wait before being offered a two-bedroom property.
With neither the opportunity to access the private sector nor the public sector (at least not without an excruciatingly long wait), it is evident the Government must do something to increase affordable housing for benefit recipients.
The policy director at the National Residential Landlords Association, Chris Norris, suggested that the government could support tenants by ensuring benefits cover rent entirely.
This would only continue the tradition of public money going directly into the pockets of private landlords. A better way of spending public funds would be that the Government introduces rent control measures —so that private housing becomes more affordable— while it builds new properties for social renters. In this way, benefit recipients will be able to access social housing when in need and the income from the rent goes back to housing associations or local councils.