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‘No DSS’: Five leading letting agents risk breaking discrimination law

Posted 22 Aug 2018

Five of England’s leading letting agents actively discriminate against tenants on housing benefit, according to a new report by Shelter and the National Housing Federation (NHF). 

In an undercover investigation carried out by Mystery Shoppers Ltd. 149 regional letting agent branches were called by researchers posing as prospective tenants. A shocking one in ten had a branch policy not to let to anyone on housing benefit, regardless of whether they could afford the rent. 

The worst offender out of the six big brands investigated was Haart, with an outright ban on housing benefit tenants in a third of the branches called (8 out of 25). The only letting agent not to have any bans in place, was Hunters (0 out of 25).

The research also exposes the wider uphill struggle faced by housing benefit tenants. Almost half (48%) of branches called said they had no suitable homes or landlords willing to let to someone on housing benefit. 

Appalled by the findings, the two housing organisations have joined forces to urge letting agents and landlords to remove these bans, which they argue are both grossly unfair and likely to be unlawful. 

The failure of successive governments to build enough social housing means that there are an estimated 1.64 million adults who now rely on housing benefit to help with expensive private rents. The majority are women – especially single mothers with childcare responsibilities. People who receive disability benefits are also three times more likely to need a housing benefit top-up. 

Consequently, under the Equality Act 2010, letting agents who reject housing benefit tenants outright could be at risk of breaking the law because of indirect discrimination against women and disabled people.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “This ugly undercurrent of discrimination is wreaking havoc on hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. ‘No DSS’ is an outdated and outrageous example of blatant prejudice.

“Private renting is now so expensive that many people simply can’t get by without some housing benefit, even if they’re working. At Shelter we hear from families - who’ve always paid their rent - being pushed to breaking point after having the door repeatedly slammed shut on them just because they need housing benefit. 

“Rejecting all housing benefit tenants is morally bankrupt, and because these practices overwhelmingly impact women and disabled people, they could be unlawful. That’s why we’re urging all landlords and letting agents to get rid of housing benefit bans, and treat people fairly on a case by case basis.” 

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents social landlords of around 6 million people, said: “Many housing associations were set up in the 50s and 60s to house people who could find nowhere else to live due to blatant racism from private landlords and letting agents who told them “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. Letting agents should be ashamed that discrimination is still happening today in the form of an outright ban on people simply because they depend on housing benefit. We know this is purely based on prejudice. 

“The homeless shelters and charities housing vulnerable people that we represent, find it increasingly impossible to help their residents move in to their own independent home. Often, nowhere in the private rented sector will take someone on benefits and the chronic shortage of social housing means often none of this is available. Landlords and letting agents must see sense and assess people on a case by case basis, whilst Government urgently need to invest in the building of new social homes.”

Case study: Lauren, 47, is a single mother, holding down three jobs. She has lived in the same privately rented home in Lewes for 14-years, and has always paid her rent on time. Unfortunately, due to recent increases in her rent, Lauren is searching for a cheaper home. 

Lauren said: “I looked for a private rented place which might be more affordable but everywhere says no DSS. The letting agents I called were all so dismissive and rude, there was no leeway. The experience was horrible and very uncomfortable and unsettling. There is huge discrimination, everyone is tarred with the same brush, and it’s unfair.”

Notes to editors:

  • Detailed research can be found in ‘Stop DSS Discrimination: Ending prejudice against renters on benefits’ – copies available from Shelter’s press office.

  • Shelter/YouGov survey of 1,137 private landlords found that 61% bar or prefer not to rent to housing benefit tenants. The leading reason cited by landlords who use an agent on all properties was ‘advice from my letting agent’ (36%) [UK, online, July - August 2017].

  • Shelter calculated an estimate for the number of adults on housing benefit in England using DWP Sta-Xplore tool. Figure correct at Sept 2017 for consistency with gender analysis.

  • Due to the inability to cross refer disability and housing benefits on the DWP stats tool, this data is taken from wave 7 of Understanding Society. Tenure data was matched to the Household identifiers for the individual respondents, and filtered by those within the private rented sector and claiming Disability Living Allowance. Total unweighted base is c.4,000 within this group. Data was collected January 2015 – January 2017. 

  • The figures for the number of women on housing benefit were calculated using caseload data published by the Department for Work and Pensions. Data analysis is from the 12 months to February 2018. The 60% of adults on housing benefit who are women is the number of adult women in a household with a housing benefit claim. 52% of households claiming housing benefit were single women.95% of single parent households claiming housing benefit are led by a woman.

Agent namesTotal number of callsBranch policy is to accept people on housing benefit but no properties currently available reasons unclearBranch policy is to accept people on housing benefit but no properties currently available - because no landlords currently let to housing benefit�tenantsBranch policy is not to accept housing benefit tenantsTotal where no properties are available
Fox & Sons245128
Your Move2538112
Total (%)14917%20%10%48%

  • Source: Analysis by Shelter, Mystery shopping fieldwork carried out by independent MRS accredited research agency Mystery Shoppers Ltd. Responses are only categorised in the table above if they definitively meet the criteria, any with any element of doubt are not included.

Mystery shopper call quotes: 

“I felt like I was a second-class citizen and that he wanted to get off the phone to me as soon as he could.”

“Once I mentioned housing benefit she was abrupt and wanted to end the call. She was very dismissive and unhelpful.” 

“Their tone of voice changed to unfriendly as soon as I mentioned housing benefit and they did not treat me with respect or dignity.”

About Shelter

Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through our advice, support and legal services. We campaign to make sure that, one day, no one will have to turn to us for help. For free and independent advice from Shelter visit:

About National Housing Federation

The National Housing Federation is the voice of affordable housing in England. We believe that everyone should have the home they need at a price they can afford. That’s why we represent the work of housing associations and campaign for better housing.

Our members provide over two and a half million homes for six million people. And each year they invest in a diverse range of neighbourhood projects that help create strong, vibrant communities. For more information visit: