Beth Chappell’s heart broke as she threw her nine-year-old son’s board games and books in the bin. The toys destined for landfill were not belongings he had outgrown or become bored with. They were a casualty of the damp, mould and mites that plagued his bedroom in the Bedfordshire flat they have lived in for five years.
“I feel like I’m not providing a good enough home for him,” said Chappell, 33. “Everything is so cold, and when the condensation forms, the water is running down his walls. There’s mould everywhere, and I spend all my life cleaning. It’s horrific.”
Chappell – who has asthma, which can be triggered by mould – has been desperate to leave the flat, but feels “stuck”. She works part-time and receives benefits to bring her income up to a level where she can afford rent. She has been explicitly ruled out for homes at the mention of “benefits” several times.
Chappell is among hundreds of thousands of people stopped from renting homes they could afford because of “No DSS” policies, which disproportionally affect single parents, women, disabled people and Black and Bangladeshi families. Six in ten landlords either bar or prefer not to let to people who receive housing benefit, according to a 2020 YouGov survey.
“About 80 percent of the agents I speak to say, ‘Oh no, we don’t take benefits,’” said Chappell. “I can’t seem to get anywhere. I feel like I’m never going to be good enough. It feels like you’re blacklisted and everywhere you turn, you’re stuck.”
Chappell has never missed a rent payment or had any complaints, but it does not seem good enough, she said: “I’m a perfect tenant and can get references to prove it. But as soon as they see tax credits and housing benefit, they say no. [Lettings agents] have not been shy in telling me that.”
When Chappell challenged what she was being told, agents said it was because of the type of insurance covering the landlord.
Discrimination against those receiving benefits is partly responsible for how she ended up renting the flat she is in now. After escaping an abusive relationship with nothing more than their clothes when her son was three, she was turned down by several lettings agents when she declared she would need to receive benefits. She found only a private landlord who would let a property to her.
In the last year alone, three UK courts – including in York and Birmingham – have ruled that blanket bans on renting homes to people receiving benefits are unlawful, breaching the Equality Act 2010.
Most recently, Hayley Pearce, with the support of Shelter, raised a case against Michael Jones & Company. The lettings agent told the 32-year-old single mum in 2019 that she would not be acceptable to the landlord of an £825-per-month flat because part of her income came from benefits.
A judge at Worthing County Court declared by consent that Michael Jones & Company had unlawfully discriminated against Pearce in March of 2021. The lettings agent and landlord agreed to pay Pearce damages of £4,500, her legal fees and their own legal costs for the case, which ran for two years.
Yet, discrimination persists. While researching this piece, I found several online adverts for properties to let around the UK that include the words “no DSS”.
A lettings agent worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussion, said: “Demand for rentals is so high that landlords pick those in the best situation, so a young couple on £60,000 will be selected over a single-parent family on a low income. If someone receiving benefits wants to rent a property, they need a guarantor, who is a home-owning close relative and earning 26 times the rent, which for some could be hard to find.”
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, said the charity’s three legal victories in under a year prove that No DSS policies are unlawful under the Equality Act. “A safe home is everything. But we’re still hearing from people who are being barred from finding a home by landlords and lettings agents who think they can break the law,” she said.
“Discrimination means people are trapped in shoddy, poor-quality homes, or even left facing homelessness. ‘No DSS’ policies put single parents, disabled people and Black and Bangladeshi families at a particular disadvantage, as they’re more likely to claim housing benefit.
“The law is clear, but there remains a huge power imbalance between private renters and letting agents. We want people reporting discrimination to be listened to. In the fight for a home, we’re calling for a new private renting regulator to challenge discrimination – and force law-breaking agents and landlords to change their ways.”
A spokesperson for the National Residential Landlords Association said: “No landlord, letting agent or online platform should ever exclude benefit claimants automatically as prospective tenants. As with all tenants, each should be treated fairly on a case-by-case basis. Like social landlords, private landlords can apply for an affordability test to provide assurance that a prospective tenant can cover the monthly rent. Where tenants struggle, landlords should consider other options, such as a guarantor for the tenant.”
For Chappell, the search for a safe and suitable home continues. Her young son excitedly pointed out a to-let sign as they walked around their area recently. Chappell enquired and is waiting to hear from the lettings agent. “He asks me if I’ve heard about the house,” she said. “All I can say is, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ It’s horrible.”
This article was created in partnership with Shelter.