“A second-class citizen.” This is how Rosie Keogh, a working single mum, was made to feel when she was barred from renting a property simply because she got some help through housing benefit to pay her rent.
Rosie’s story, which she shared with the BBC this week, should act as a warning shot to private landlords and letting agents. Operating blanket bans against people on housing benefit could have serious legal consequences.
Her application to rent a property in Birmingham was refused by a letting agent because they wouldn’t consider any tenant on housing benefit. It didn’t matter that Rosie had paid her rent in full, and on-time, for the last 11 years.
Rosie is not alone - 95% of single parents on housing benefit are women.
Our advisers at Shelter repeatedly hear from desperate mothers battling to find someone willing to let to them, regardless of being able to afford the rent. Which echoes what landlords tell us too. Our landlord survey found a staggering 43% of private landlords have an outright ban on letting to tenants on housing benefit.
When you consider there are over a million households who rent privately and claim housing benefit - around 40% of them are in work – you have some idea of the scale of the problem.
But Rosie decided to fight back. The former paralegal made a claim against the letting agent for indirect sex discrimination at the county court.
The argument follows that because more women than men - especially single mothers - rely on housing-benefit to pay the rent, they inevitably suffer the most if landlords treat them badly. This means that under the Equality Act, an outright ban on housing benefit tenants could be unlawful.
With legal help from Shelter and the Bar Pro Bono Unit, eventually the letting agent backed down. They admitted to indirect discrimination on the grounds of Rosie’s sex and agreed to pay her compensation rather than continue to defend themselves in court.
We believe that these blanket bans could also be indirectly discriminating against other ‘protected characteristics’ too, such as disability, under the Equality Act.
Rosie’s case was settled out of court so it does not set a legally binding precedent. However, it is the first time we’ve seen arguments successfully raised against ‘no DSS’ bans, and the first time we’ve seen a letting agent admit to indirect discrimination.
Notably, the National Landlords Association says it highlights “the very worst of what a minority of renters have to put up with when looking to secure a home in the private rented sector”. And the government says that it is “wrong to treat someone differently because they are claiming a benefit”.
We hope Rosie’s story is enough for landlords and letting agents to get rid of ‘no DSS’ blanket bans and start treating people fairly based on their individual merits.
But if not, we stand ready and waiting to take on the next legal challenge.
Anyone who believes they are being discriminated against in this way can share their story with us by visiting the Shelter website.
Polly Neate is CEO of Shelter