Time to expose blatant sexism of private landlords

I’ve rented privately for 12 years and in that time I’ve had eleven landlords and only one landlady.

This stark imbalance never struck me until I joined Digs, a group of private tenants giving support to other renters in Hackney.

As I began supporting other tenants, I found that brazen sexism was as rife in the private rented sector as it was in other situations where men grossly dominate positions of power.

Last Saturday afternoon I sat in the dazzling white offices of a letting agents on Stoke Newington High Street in East London.

I was there to support Gina, a private tenant who had been without hot water for six weeks.

She was also fighting for control of her home with a particularly tenacious breed of Japanese cockroaches.

Despite Gina’s family-sized can of insect spray and the kind of heroic determination normally only witnessed in the movies of Harrison Ford, the cockroaches were winning.

We hoped this meeting with the landlord was a chance to find practical solutions to the problems that was making Gina’s home unlivable.

Instead, the landlord flatly refused to accept the boiler was broken.

And he curtly informed Gina that if the cockroaches were anything other than a figment of her imagination, it was only the result of her lax domestic habits.

The landlord spent the meeting trying his level best to get under Gina’s skin, dismissing everything she said and derailing the conversation with petty attacks.

Gina took deep breaths and tried to steer the conversation back onto the boiler and the infestation.

Eventually the landlord agreed to send someone round to fix the boiler and the letting agent agreed to take on the issue of the cockroaches.

As we were about to leave, the landlord leaned over to Gina’s boyfriend, the co-tenant, and said clearly and unashamedly: “I don’t mind dealing with you, you’re a man. See her, I’m not going to deal with her, she’s a woman”.

In that second it became clear why the landlord had refused to engage with Gina professionally and to take her problems seriously – because Gina was female and he didn’t see why he should be told what to do by a woman, even if she was paying him upwards of £100 a week in rent.

Having your home in the hands of someone who sees you as inferior can be an incredibly demoralizing experience.

Because of unaffordable house prices and a decline in social housing, the private rented sector is the only option for a rapidly increasing number of people.

And the housing shortage means desperate tenants are in no position to be choosy about the decency of their prospective landlord.

But sexism is not the only form of prejudice that plagues the private rented sector.

In a recent study the charity Stonewall found more than 40 per cent of the LGBT people they interviewed said they still feel insecure in their homes or are facing eviction.

“Unfortunately, LGBT people still face daily harassment and abuse simply because of who they are. Sometimes, that abuse comes from a landlord,” Stonewall said.

The Everyday Sexism Project says the problem of sexist landlords is far from rare: “We’ve received a considerable number of accounts from women who have experienced sexism from landlords and lettings agents.

“Women want and deserve to be able to speak directly to their landlord about issues affecting them in their homes and to be respected as equal tenants” they say.

One female tenant told Everyday Sexism: “Recently [my landlord] phoned me saying “you haven’t been paying your rent now, have you dear?” and questioned whether I understood the online banking process.

“I informed him I had saved all documents with physical proof of my rent payments each month, and that I would be happy to send it to him. He just hung up.”

When tenant blogger Penny Anderson complained to the council about exposed wires in her bathroom which nearly electrocuted her housemate, her landlord was unrepentant.

He told the council:  “You know what girls are like. Always nagging and whining”.

And Rosie Walker, another member of Digs, has also been at the cliff face of sexist landlords.

Defending himself against a catalogue of complaints lodged by his tenants, her landlord explained to the council that these were “problem tenants”.

When the council officer asked him to elaborate, the aggrieved landlord retorted: “Well the women answer back!”

What is so arresting about these stories is that the landlords in question feel themselves to be beyond censure.

In the testosterone soaked offices of high street letting agents, where Lynx is pumped through the air vents and men flex their bravado in shiny grey suits, landlords can be confident that their views will go unchallenged.

Discriminating against a tenant based on their gender, race, sexuality, disability or religion is a criminal offence, but the private rented sector is a hugely unpoliced area, seething with shady practices.

And these kinds of offences are hard to prove, especially as free access to legal representation dries up.

Landlords like Gina’s are well aware the law offer tenants little protection.

At Digs, we are encouraging tenants to start talking amongst themselves and publicly exposing prejudiced and unprofessional landlords.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch: email hello@hackneyrenters.org

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