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Research and insights

Prejudice in practice: racism in the private rented sector

Published date: 15 December 2023

A Black woman holding her baby and looking at the camera

Jenny Lamb

Policy Officer

There has never been a more important time to highlight the damage wreaked by discrimination in the private rented sector. The Renters (Reform) Bill is making its way through parliament. It’s an unmissable opportunity for politicians to tackle this unjust culture and enshrine renters’ rights in law.

Home is a fundamental human need. But too many people can’t get a decent, safe home in the face of unfair discrimination. People tell us every day that landlords refuse to rent to them because they’re on benefits, have children, or even because of their nationality, ethnicity or disability.

With the number of social homes continuing to dwindle, more and more households are forced into the private rented sector, where rents are expensive, conditions are poor and tenant rights are limited. Discrimination is rife: over a quarter of landlords agree with the statement that 'it’s natural that stereotypes and prejudices come into it when I decide who to let to'.

Discrimination has no home in the private rented sector. In this blog series, we will shine a light on the various forms discrimination takes, the mechanisms through which it is allowed to persist, and the tangible solutions that can stop it in its tracks.

If you feel as outraged as we do, you can join our campaign to put an end to discrimination in the private rented sector.

Black renters

The private rented sector is the most diverse tenure type and has the highest proportion of ethnic minorities relative to other tenures.

Despite its diversity, certain groups within the private rented sector are subjected to persistent discrimination which locks them out of homes they could otherwise afford.

Our research has revealed that Black renters are disproportionately faced with barriers that prevent them from securing a home in the sector, compared to White renters.

Families with children

Black renters are three and a half times more likely than White renters to be told that their landlord or letting agent operates a ’no children’ policy, resulting in a higher proportion of Black families being unfairly denied a home.

While discriminatory blanket rules such as these are technically unlawful under the Equalities Act, this practice is very much alive in the private rented sector, where legal support is limited and raising a complaint is complex, stressful and time-consuming.

As well as general bans against families, Black households are four and a half times more likely than White renters to be rejected by a landlord or letting agent if they are a single-parent household. While Black single parents face a specific kind of intersectional prejudice, there is a further element in these cases which provokes and fosters discrimination – that 50% of single-parent families in the UK claim income-related benefits, compared to 16% across all family types.

Renters who receive benefits

Shockingly, 52% of landlords have admitted that they would not or prefer not to rent to people in receipt of housing benefit. For Black renters, this can pose an insurmountable barrier. As many as 12% of Black renters have been told by a letting agent or landlord in the last five years that they would not be able to afford the rent on a property, or that they had failed an affordability check, making them twice as likely as White renters to be denied housing for this reason.

Affordability checks are unregulated, can impose arbitrary affordability thresholds on applicants, and often do not recognise benefits as a legitimate source of income. Black households, along with Bangladeshi households, are the most likely to receive support with the cost of housing, meaning that landlord prejudice against tenants in receipt of benefits has a disproportionate impact on Black renters.

Rent in advance

Even where a prospective tenant has not had their application for a home in the private rented sector rejected outright, Black renters are forced to jump through additional hoops designed to lock them out of the sector. Our research tells us that Black renters are four times more likely than White renters to be asked for extortionate levels of rent upfront – six months or more – to secure a home. As half of private renters have no savings, this is an impossible barrier designed to trip people at the final hurdle in an often desperate search for a safe and secure home.

The Renters Reform Bill

While the government has committed to tackling particular forms of discrimination through its Renters Reform Bill, discrimination in the private rented sector has a more profound impact on Black households. Nearly one in ten (9%) of Black renters report being denied housing in the last five years because of their race, compared to 0.3% of White renters.

The bill in its current form proposes to outlaw blanket bans against families with children and tenants in receipt of benefits, making it directly illegal to discriminate against these groups. This is an important and necessary first step in tackling discrimination in the sector, but it still leaves opportunities wide open for landlords and agents to exploit. Further measures are needed to address the more informal barriers to private renting that will proliferate as letting agents and landlords simply change their tactics – such as asking for multiple months’ rent in advance and that renters appoint a high-earning guarantor.

For Black households in particular, who are presented with additional barriers that lock them out of housing, it has never been more crucial that these informal barriers are proactively tackled.

This is why we are calling on the government to strengthen the protections for renters within the Renters Reform Bill, by limiting requests for rent in advance to one month and restricting the circumstances in which a landlord or agent can legitimately ask a tenant to appoint a guarantor.

Discrimination in the private rented sector will only be solved when the far-reaching and furtive strategies employed to keep people out are disarmed. Rent in advance and guarantor demands are two such prolific strategies and, if they remain unaddressed, discrimination within the private rented sector will continue to thrive.

Agree that the government needs to end discrimination in the private rented sector for good? Join our campaign.

All figures in bold are from a YouGov survey for Shelter of 4,023 private renting adults (18+) in England. The survey was conducted online between 14 July – 16 August 2023, and the results were weighted to be representative of private renters.

The survey was funded by The Co-operative Bank which is campaigning with Shelter for the transformation of private renting for good, and the delivery of a robust Renters Reform Bill.