By Misha Nayak-Oliver
Refusing to rent homes to those in receipt of housing benefit has been ruled unlawfully discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability. This is the first time a ‘no DSS’ discrimination case has been fully considered by a UK Court.
In the last decade, the private rental sector has almost doubled in England. There are now over 11 million private renters in England, of which over one million private renting households receive housing benefit. A YouGov survey conducted by the charity Shelter, found that two thirds of private landlords either operate an outright ban on, or prefer not to let, tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit. Private letting agents and landlords advertise properties using clauses such as ‘working households preferred’ and ‘professional tenants only’ and operate policies of ‘no DSS’, ‘no benefits’, or ‘no Universal Credit’, in order to prevent people who receive housing benefit from renting homes.
Research by Shelter found that ‘no DSS’ policies especially disadvantage women and disabled people as they are more likely to receive housing benefit. The charity reported that people in receipt of disability benefits are three times more likely to also receive housing benefit, the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that 60% of adults on housing benefit are female, and 95% of single parents receiving housing benefit are female.
If women or disabled people are more likely to be on housing benefit, then these people are more likely to be disproportionately impacted by ‘no DSS’ policies. ‘No DSS’ policies are open to legal challenge under The Equality Act 2010, which applies in the United Kingdom (with some exceptions). The Equality Act requires equal treatment in private and public sectors for the protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
This means that it is unlawful to discriminate against people who have these characteristic(s), and there is protection for these people in different areas, such as buying or renting a property.
The case was brought by a disabled single mother with children who became homeless after being handed a Section 21 eviction notice and a letting agency refusing to consider her rental application for a privately rented home because she was on housing benefit. In this landmark case heard virtually at York County Court on 1 July 2020, the District Judge Victoria Elizabeth Mark said that a letting agent’s former policy was “unlawfully indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability contrary to Sections 19 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010”, adding “A decade after the Equality Act 2010 was brought into force, it’s saddening that it’s been necessary to fight so hard to protect the rights of tenants”. The letting agent admitted to indirect discrimination and agreed to settle out of court, and the prospective tenant was awarded compensation.
The right to housing is a legally binding international human right; an essential social and economic condition needed by all people to live a life of dignity and freedom. The UK Government is under a legal duty to protect the right to housing and prevent private letting agents and landlords from interfering with people’s enjoyment of the right to a home. Luke Hall MP, minister for rough sleeping and housing, acknowledged that “Everyone should have the same opportunity when looking for a home and discriminating against someone simply because they receive benefits has no place in a modern housing market”.
While the ‘no DSS’ court case is not precedent setting, that such policies have been recognised by the Court as discriminatory is a step towards tackling the inequality in housing access faced by people who receive housing benefit and have been facing discrimination when looking for a home.
Given the increase in the number of people applying for benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision that ‘no DSS’ policies are unlawful is a critical development. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought inequalities into sharp focus. Exceptionally high numbers of people are homeless, or vulnerable to homelessness. Those most affected by a drop in income linked to COVID-19 are young adults, people who are Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME), women, and those on the lowest incomes. Our research with Migrants Rights Network has found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant communities in particular face significant barriers when enjoying their right to housing. However, as recognised by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the assumption that a person’s home provides protection against contracting and spreading the virus, is not always the case; in the UK many people in the private rental sector face lack of security of tenure, high housing costs, and overcrowding.
Across the UK, in both the public and private sectors, we must continue to recognise intersectional socio-economic inequalities and use the legal tools available to change policy and practice in the housing sector. More work is required to protect and enforce the right to housing, and a human rights approach is essential to ensure that no one is left behind.
For more information see Just Fair’s statement in response to COVID–19, Just Fair’s report with Generation Rent on the need for UK Government to end S21 evictions, our response to the COVID-19 inquiry into homelessness and COVID-19 with Migrants Rights Network, and our other blogs on the right to housing and social and economic rights.