The voice at the end of the phone was blunt and unapologetic. ‘Those are the rules Ms Collier,’ the letting agent told me. ‘We don’t rent property to people claiming benefits.’
It was February 2020 and the third time I’d been rejected by a letting agent in as many weeks, simply because I was claiming a small amount of housing benefit and receiving child tax credits.
Never mind that I’d never been in rent arrears in my life, and worked hard as a part-time accounts assistant. The minute I mentioned I claimed benefits, it was like someone had pulled the shutters down.
My emails would go unanswered and if I phoned letting agents up, I’d be told the landlord’s insurance policy wouldn’t let them rent to me.
‘It’s nothing personal,’ letting agents would insist. But it felt very personal – like I was in the dregs of society and that I didn’t have the same rights as other people. And it was depressingly familiar.
Back in 2017, while happily renting a three-bed flat in Enfield, North London with my son Liam, then 18, I received a Section 21 no-fault eviction -which allows landlords to repossess their properties without having to establish fault on the part of the tenant.
Though I’d never missed a rent payment in the seven years that I’d lived there, the landlord told me they wanted to renovate the flat and sell it. I was given six weeks to find somewhere else.
If that wasn’t stressful enough, Liam has autism, so sudden changes to his routine can be devastating. Understandably, he was angry and upset, but I promised him I’d find us a new place. After all, we had six weeks. That would be plenty of time.
Or so I’d thought. That was when I first encountered ‘No DSS’ discrimination.
Agents and landlords who operate on this principle will refuse to let their property to someone who receives benefits, even if that person can afford the rent (‘DSS’ stands for the now-closed Department for Social Security, which used to be responsible for paying people benefits). This is exactly what happened to me.
The excuses were the same ones I hear now. If it wasn’t insurance brokers putting the kibosh on things, I’d be told, ‘Sorry, the landlord rents to professionals only.’ That really stung.
Back then I was out of work after suffering a breakdown. If that weren’t stigma enough, it felt like I was being judged and sneered at. The so-called ‘professionals’ the landlords wanted were clearly seen as a class above.
With just a week before eviction we still hadn’t found anywhere. While I tried to hide my fears from Liam, who was studying creative media at college, I felt sick with terror. What if we ended up on the streets?
‘I won’t let that happen,’ my mum Hazel, then 70, said. She lived nearby in a rented one bed-flat, but it was too small for all of us. ‘Then I’ll move in with you,’ she said. She reckoned if we looked for a three-bed place together rather than a two-bed, we’d have better luck.
The minute I mentioned I claimed benefits, it was like someone had pulled the shutters down
Incredibly, she was right. With mum, a pensioner, I was no longer viewed as a ‘single mum’ with all the stereotypes that come with it.
Just four days to go until our eviction, we found a three-bedroom house. It wasn’t ideal. The rent was £1,600 a month, the area wasn’t very nice and the house was in dire need of repair. But at least we weren’t on the streets.
Despite the shabby surroundings, we made that house a home as best we could. But then, in December 2019, I got a small windfall – some share proceeds from work.
It should have been good news, but suddenly it meant I was no longer entitled to housing benefit. Though Liam received PIP and Universal Credit, as he wasn’t on the tenancy, he couldn’t claim housing benefit. So, with mum paying £475 towards the rent, it meant I had to meet the outstanding £1125 myself.
Having to make ends meet felt like a nightmare – there were times I didn’t know how we would get through. In February 2020, with my savings dwindling fast, I decided it was time to find somewhere cheaper to live.
Despite being close, Mum and I agreed we both needed our own space, so while she started looking for a one-bed flat, I decided to approach letting agents about renting a three-bed house in a cheaper area.
This time Liam would be on the tenancy with me, so with us both able to claim housing benefit once my savings ran out, I hoped we’d find somewhere affordable. But I encountered the same wall of prejudice I’d faced back in 2017.
And then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and made things extra hard. I was furloughed for three months and, during lockdown, there were far fewer properties available and I couldn’t view anywhere.
Thankfully me and Mum were able to support one another. Like me, she hadn’t yet found anywhere else to rent.
But the disruption to Liam and his college work was awful. Unable to tolerate the uncertainty, his moods were all over the place. It’s been an incredibly stressful time.
Now lockdown has lifted, I’m back on the house-hunting trail, but it’s hard not to feel demoralised in the face of constant rejection. Together, Liam and I have an income of £35k a year, yet landlords still won’t rent to us.
But I’ve also noticed that things have started to change – I’ve not been automatically rejected by letting agents and I’ve been able to view properties, which heartens me.
I’m in touch with homelessness and housing charity, Shelter, who have told me about a landmark ruling they won at York County Court in July, in which the judge declared housing benefit discrimination unlawful.
The case involved a single mum-of-two called Jane who, like me, was turned away from a property she could afford by a letting agent who had a blanket ‘No DSS’ policy. Because housing benefit discrimination stopped her from finding a place to live, she and her kids became homeless and ended up in a hostel at Christmas.
She later got in touch with Shelter to take on her case – and won. I’m hoping this will empower me as I try to find an affordable home to rent, as I can use the ruling to push back if I get any direct rejections because I receive housing benefit.
Having said that, many agents still don’t reply to you, or tell you the property has been let. They’re obligated to show you around, but will they let me rent a home?
There’s still a long way to go. ‘No DSS’ discrimination isn’t just cruel and unnecessary – it’s unlawful and it’s wrong.
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