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Shelter solicitor Rose Arnall: It was time to fight discrimination in court

Rose Arnall, winning solicitor at housing charity Shelter, helped secure a landmark victory against housing discrimination for a tenant. She explains the steps you can take to stop it happening to you

Discrimination against people who receive housing benefit is rife in private renting. Shelter sees every day how it turns people’s lives upside down and pushes many into homelessness.

So-called No DSS discrimination is when landlords or letting agents refuse someone’s tenancy application simply because they receive benefits, even when they can afford the rent. Sometimes, a letting agent or landlord will explicitly advertise “no DSS” or “no benefits”. Other times, a person will enquire about a property only to be refused or ignored.

In 2019, we found that almost a third of private renters receiving housing benefit (32 per cent) had been barred from renting a home they wanted by a No DSS policy in the last five years. There are currently 4.6 million households in privately rented homes in England, and at least one million of them receive housing benefit – that number has also increased drastically during the pandemic. This means hundreds of thousands of people are being blocked from finding a safe home.

It is easy to see how people repeatedly turned away because they receive benefits are ending up on the brink of homelessness with nowhere to turn. Overstretched councils are already buckling under homelessness applications from people who cannot afford private rentals. It’s senseless that people experiencing DSS discrimination are adding to their numbers and becoming homeless – when they can afford to pay private rents.

We launched our End DSS Discrimination campaign two years ago, working with mortgage lenders, letting agents, insurance companies, landlord associations, and central and local government. Many agreed these policies are outdated and tenants should be assessed individually. But we continued to hear from people being refused properties they could afford.

We decided it was time to fight discrimination in the courts. There is no law in the UK that directly outlaws DSS discrimination. But the Equality Act 2010 protects people from being treated differently because of characteristics like age, race, gender or disability.

Although No DSS policies can affect anyone, women are one-and-a-half times more likely to rely on housing benefit than men, and disabled people are three times more likely to need housing benefit than non-disabled people. So, blanket DSS bans particularly disadvantage these groups and, with no good reason for having them, that’s indirect discrimination.

Shelter has helped many people win legal and financial settlements over the last two years. But it wasn’t until Jane decided to stand up against DSS discrimination in July 2020 that a case was fully considered by a UK court. This resulted in the all-important ruling from a judge that this practice is indeed unlawful.

A letting agent had refused to let to Jane because they had a “policy for years not to accept housing benefit tenants”. When DSS discrimination prevented her from finding a home, Jane and her children became homeless.

She got in touch with Shelter’s legal team – and her bravery paid off when the court declared that the letting agent’s “former policy of rejecting tenancy applications because the applicant is in receipt of housing benefit was unlawfully indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability contrary to […] the Equality Act 2010”. A huge victory, but what happens now?

Jane’s case is a massive step forward because it confirms that Shelter’s legal analysis is correct: DSS discrimination is unlawful. Agents, landlords and tenants now have a crystal-clear judgment clarifying the law. Agents and landlords must now make sure they are acting within the law – if they don’t, they could face legal action and serious financial penalties.

But sadly, proving something is illegal doesn’t immediately end its practice.

If you’re a housing benefit tenant and you’re being turned away from properties you can afford, the first thing to do is write a formal email or letter to the agent. Ask them to reconsider your application in light of the court judgment and remind them that DSS discrimination is unlawful. Make your suitability clear by listing your rental history, ability to afford the rent and references.

If you are still not considered fairly, take your complaint to the letting agent’s redress scheme or The Property Ombudsman. You can also get help from Shelter.