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We demanded an end to discrimination – what did the letting agents say?

Atkinson McLeodWe launched our #YesDSS campaign with a bang outside Hackney Town Hall. Around 80 people came along to tell local letting agents that we’ll no longer tolerate their naked discrimination of people on benefits. We heard from some amazing groups also fighting housing inequality that came to show solidarity with our campaign.

We mystery shopped 50 letting agents in Hackney and found only ONE property available to people on benefits. Around half the agents we spoke to had a blanket ‘No DSS’ policy. As rents have sky-rocketed and wages have stagnated, there’s been a huge increase in the number of people who need to claim benefits to cover their rents.

We took our lively procession to several letting agents with blanket ‘No DSS’ policies, to demand they remove these policies and open their doors to people on benefits. Landlords, letting agents, councils and mortgage lenders are all responsible for refusing to house people on benefits. We started our campaign with letting agents because as their shops buy up more and more of our high streets and they make more and more money for our need to be housed, blanket ‘No DSS’ discrimination is becoming more and more common.

There was a clear dividing line between the letting agents we spoke to – some were dismissive, unwilling to discuss the issue and later when they spoke to the press, insulting about our #YesDSS protestors. Others seemed to acknowledge ‘No DSS’ is a big problem, and we even saw some flickers of guilt in their eyes!

Most of the agents we spoke pointed the figure of blame elsewhere, either at landlords thinking people on benefits were ‘undesirable’ or councils poorly handling housing benefit claims and the advice they give to renters.

Here’s what the different letting agents we spoke to said.

Atkinson McLeod
No manager was present to discuss their blanket No DSS policy. The staff working in the shop agreed to pass the message onto their manager and ask him to contact Digs so we can discuss the campaign further. We explained that if we don’t hear from their managers we will be back.

Stirling Ackroyd
No manger was present to discuss their blanket No DSS policy. The receptionist said she’d pass our message and request a meeting onto the manager but she was unhappy about  our peaceful demonstration and called the police. We explained that if we don’t hear from their managers we will be back.

When asked about the demo, Stirling Ackroyd Sales Manager Athos Kleanthos told the Hackney Gazette, “If they spent as much time on their own lives as they do protesting they might get somewhere in life.

“We do take DSS, but all of the landlords we work with don’t want tenants on housing benefit. When the Tories came to power they changed how much they were going to contribute to DSS tenants. They should be storming the Houses of Parliament not estate agents.”

When we called Stirling Ackroyd we were told over the phone that they have a policy not take people on benefits.

Stirling Ackroyd have since distained themselves from the this statement, saying “we do not support the comment made by Athos”.

Kings Group
Contrary to what they said when we called their office, their Manager Hadi Nazzari said they do take people on benefits but most of their landlords don’t like it. He said he was very sympathetic to the #YesDSS campaign and people on benefits struggling to find a home. He said he’d be willing to host a meeting with some of his landlords to encourage them to take more people in receipt of housing benefit.

Hadi told the Hackney Gazette, “It can be a real struggle to find a property when you are on benefits. We do all we can, we only ask they are working 20 hours a week, but landlords say their previous experiences with tenants on benefits means they don’t usually want them.”

Keatons
The Sales Manager Tarik said he would like to do more to help people on benefits. He said he himself was a private landlord and “people on benefits are some of the best tenants I’ve ever had”.

Ultimately though, the decision around their ‘No DSS’ policy would need to be made by their Lettings Manager Simon Jackson. Tarik gave us his and Simon’s contact details so we can follow this up.

In Tarik’s view the main reason agents and landlords don’t take people on benefits is because in the event of an eviction procedure, Hackney council advise tenants to stay in their property until there is a bailiff at their door and often refuse to process their homeless application until this final stage of the eviction.

What next?

With the persuasive power of 80 protestors in and around their premises, many (though by no means all) of the letting agents we spoke to were able to see the sense in our demand for #YesDSS.

For the letting agents who said they’d like to do more, we’ll do what we can to turn this into action so people on benefits can find a home. As for the agents who dismissed the campaign, (we’re looking at you Stirling Ackroyd!) we’ll be planning our next moves to ramp up the pressure on them until they scrap their anti-social, discriminatory practices and say #YesDSS!

We’re glad our campaign has already sparked quite a bit of debate among landlords, lettings agents and the media – everyone seems to be blaming someone else but no one’s denying there’s a problem. Read an article and interesting debate here about our campaign.

Our next public #YesDSS action is the 23th of April – please save the date so you can get involved.

More comments from lettings we spoke to

“We mainly serve Zone 1 and 2 and landlords here prefer working professionals. You’d have a better chance in Zones 4 and 5.”

“Landlords prefer professionals.”

“We don’t have properties for that clientele.”

Political opportunism from local MPs!

Our intention was to provide an open mic for people who have been directly affected by letting agents’ blanket ‘No DSS’ policy. Local MP Meg Hillier took this opportunity to speak at the start of the demo, absolving the Labour party of any responsibility for this problem and placing all the blame on the current Tory government. Predictably, it is her photo that has made it into nearly every article published by the mainstream press about our action. This is despite the fact that she had no hand in the hard work of organising and actually left straight after the photo shoot – before the real action even started!

Digs is made up of private renters in Hackney with a variety of political viewpoints. As a group, we don’t support or provide a platform for any political party. We see it as our role to challenge everyone in power for their complicity in the current disastrous housing system.

We haven’t forgotten how the last Labour government oversaw the growth of the housing bubble and how the number of buy-to-let mortgages exploded under their leadership. This permanently changed our communities and our city for the worse. There is also the undeniable fact that Hackney has had a Labour council since 1972 but rampant gentrification and housing inequality have continued unabated.

Saturday was about ordinary Hackney residents – many joining in as they passed by – who were all willing to have fun and use our collective power to confront letting agents about a policy that openly discriminates against some of the most marginalised people in Hackney. We did it because nobody in government, from our local council to the Prime Minister, is genuinely challenging the powerful property lobby and their damaging practices. We did it because people are angry and they are needlessly suffering. We’ll keep doing it until change happens.

Join our campaign!

This is only the start of our campaign. We want to end ‘No DSS’ discrimination letting agents, landlords, mortgage lenders and insurers.  If we’re going to do that we’ll need sympathetic people like you who believe nobody should be refused housing just because they claim benefits.

Email us about joining Digs and supporting the call for #YesDSS: hello@hackneyrenters.org

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