In 2015, after living in her private rented flat for four years, Digs member Emma and her young son Bobby* received a Section 21 eviction notice in the post. As an assured shorthold tenant, the Section 21 meant that she could be evicted with only two months notice (after the notice had expired and the judge had granted an eviction notice).
As Emma describes in her blog about the experience, she was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to find a new place to live at short notice. Emma works full-time, but her wages don’t cover the extortionate rents of the private rented sector (PRS) in Hackney, so she receives housing benefit as a top up. Bobby is in school locally, and at the time all their support networks and activities were within a ten-minute walk of the flat.
When Emma began searching for a new flat in the same area, she found that her wages alone wouldn’t stretch to the going PRS rate in Hackney. She then began telling letting agents that she got a housing benefit to supplement her wages, hoping that would count in her favour. Instead, she was repeatedly told that “our landlords don’t accept DSS.” (DSS being the now defunct Department of Social Security that is still used as a byword for housing benefit.) Because of her status as a housing benefit claimant, Emma was denied the opportunity to find a home close to her son’s school and in the area they had made a life for themselves for the past five years.
Emma is just one of the many thousands of people who struggle to find a decent, affordable home in the PRS because of exorbitant rents and prejudice towards people who claim benefits. This is why we’re launching our #YesDSS campaign this Saturday (27th Feb), 11am outside Hackney Town Hall and ask you to invite all your friends and come down. Click here to see the facebook event.
People who claim housing benefit do so for a variety of reasons. Among others, they include the disabled, the elderly, carers, low income families, people trying to leave abusive relationships and people with learning difficulties. Yet according a lot of landlords and letting agents, all of these people now constitute bad or unreliable tenants.
Between December 2015 and February 2016, Digs members carried out a “mystery shopper” survey of 50 estate agents in Hackney. We wanted to find out how many letting agents currently had properties that would accept tenants who claim housing benefit. We also asked if they had a company policy on the issue, and whether the use of guarantors would make a difference to landlords who say “No DSS”.
What was the grand total of properties available to Hackney residents who claim benefits? ONE studio flat. That’s one flat out of all the rental properties currently managed by letting agents in Hackney.
Some agents will say that they “might get something in, but most of our landlords don’t like DSS.” Others will simply explain that it’s company policy not to accept DSS. They argue that landlords worry about benefit claimants not paying, or that housing benefit payments taking too long.
Several letting agents we spoke to told us that their landlords “prefer professional tenants.” The thinly-veiled insinuation in such statements is that no-one claiming housing benefit could ever be considered a professional. For Hackney’s landlords and agents, “DSS” seems to signify a whole social and moral category of people who are deemed to be undesirable tenants. Underneath their stigma is a desire to bring in wealthier tenants who are willing and able to pay the ever-rising rents.
At Digs, we believe that everyone should have a decent, secure and genuinely affordable home regardless of how much they earn. We also believe that people shouldn’t be forced out of areas like Hackney simply so that landlords and estate agents can make greater profits.
We’re launching our #YesDSS campaign this month to put pressure on letting agents, landlords, mortgage lenders, councils and the government to make sure that no-one should be prevented from renting a property simply because they receive benefits. Here are seven reasons why letting agents and landlords should say #YesDSS:
- “No DSS” is a form of discrimination. It stems from an ill-conceived stigmatisation of benefit claimants and reinforces forms of exclusion that people on low incomes already face. Some solicitors have argued that, in cases where people receive benefits due to disability, “No DSS” may in fact be in breach of the 2010 Equalities Act. We believe this should be legally challenged.
- More and more people have no choice but to claim benefits. It is not only people without work who must do so, but also those who cannot work for health reasons or those whose pay is too low to cover their rent. An estimated eight million people will move over to the government’s new universal credit system within the next four years, while increasing numbers of those in work require help to pay their rent due to the rise in insecure, temporary and part-time jobs. Many of these people are denied access to the PRS by “No DSS”.
- Social housing is being flogged and torn down under a sustained attack from the government and property developers, while research by the estate agent Savills shows that the government’s ludicrous “starter homes” policy will be inaccessible to the vast majority of potential buyers. More people are therefore being forced into the PRS by government policy. But if people on low incomes have been driven out of affordable social housing, how will they pay the rents in London’s grossly inflated PRS without help? In Hackney the number of PRS tenants in receipt of benefits has risen by 71 percent since 2006. We want to see more social houses not less, but we also want to see a PRS that is affordable, accessible and properly regulated.
- “No DSS” leads to homelessness. Government figures show that the most common reason people find themselves homeless is the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy by a private landlord. As under-resourced councils tighten the criteria for those who can access social housing, the PRS is the only option for many. “No DSS” provides a further barrier to people on low incomes, leaving them with nowhere to go. The most recent figures show that there are 68,560 households living in temporary accommodation, which means that around 100,000 children were homeless at Christmas.
- As well as homelessness, “No DSS”exacerbates the extreme levels of stress and anxiety that many PRS tenants, particularly families, already face. According to Shelter, 27,000 families have had to move at least three times in the last five years, while 65,000 privately renting families have been left with no choice but to change their children’s school when they last had to move home. As Emma’s story indicates, the struggle to find a Hackney landlord who would accept housing benefit placed her under enormous strain. “No DSS” inhibits people’s ability to lay down roots and build a healthy, stable life for themselves and their children.
- Quite simply, landlords and letting agents have gotten away with too much for too long. Across London, PRS tenants pay extortionate rents for properties that are often cramped, damp, poorly furnished and prone to problems with basic necessities like water, heating and electricity. Landlords are fortunate enough to make their living out of other people’s relative disadvantage, yet often don’t seem to understand that providing someone with a home is not merely an easy way of making a quick buck, but rather a huge responsibility that has a lasting impact on their tenants’ well-being. Letting agents blame “No DSS” on landlords; landlords blame it on council bureaucracies, mortgage lenders and insurers. Yet the truth is that all of these people need to take proactive responsibility for ensuring that no-one is denied a decent, secure and affordable place to live simply because they don’t earn enough money. Over the coming months, our #YesDSS campaign will target everyone responsible for saying ‘No DSS’. .
- #YesDSS is only one part of a longer and broader struggle to achieve a housing market that genuinely meets the needs of everyone. We want to see an end to Section 21 and no fault evictions, the removal of letting agent fees, more social housing, rental rates that reflect local wages rather than financial speculation, and an end to caps on local housing benefit levels. We want housing policies that prioritise the needs of people over the profits of landlords, letting agents and property developers.
Join our #YesDSS action outside Hackney Town Hall on February 27th (11am start): https://www.facebook.com/events/183799625313280/
*Emma and Bobby’s names have been changed to protect their identities.