‘If you’re on benefits, landlords don’t want to know’

‘If you’re on benefits, landlords don’t want to know’

This article is part of a series, ‘Shelter defending the right to a home’, that appears on theguardian.com

A lack of social housing forces tenants on benefits to turn to private landlords – but they invariably find themselves locked out of the market. That’s why Shelter is defending the rights of those who rent, or struggle to rent because of discrimination or stigma.

When Jim Spencer was served with a section 21 notice by his landlord, he admits he didn’t know where to turn. The pensioner had moved in with his brother in Bournemouth to look after him while he was fighting cancer, and had taken over the tenancy after his brother had died. In April, he was notified of his landlord’s intention to sell the property. A friend recommended Spencer speak to Shelter, who successfully fought the eviction notice in court, helped him find local authority housing and assisted with the practical side of the move.

“They’ve been fantastic,” he says. “They went way beyond the call of duty to get me legal aid to fight my landlord … and found me social housing – I’d had my name down with the council for a year.

“If you’re on pension benefit like I am, landlords won’t accept you, they don’t want to know you,” he adds. “I don’t know what I would have done [without Shelter’s help] – the stress was affecting my health.”

The private rental sector has boomed in recent years, fuelled by a lack of available social housing and rising house prices that make home ownership out of reach for millions of working people on low to middle incomes. A quarter of all families with children in England today now live in a private rented home (a decade ago, it was one in 10). The majority of these have assured shorthold tenancies, 80% of which are set at six to 12 months, which permit landlords to evict tenants, through no fault of their own.

Shelter services support

“The majority of homeless families are now in work. The basic social deal that a job and an income meant you had a decent home is breaking down and that’s because of the huge rise in the number of families who are struggling with the rising costs and insecurity of private renting. Making a difference means defending and championing the rights of those who are contending with this system, which simply isn’t fit for purpose for raising a family,” says Greg Beales, director of communications, policy and campaigns at Shelter.

According to government homelessness statistics published in a report released by Shelter (pdf), loss of private tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness in England, and more than a million households in private rented accommodation are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020.

“The level of need is unbelievable now,” says Ben Tovey, Shelter’s hub manager in London. “We’re overbooked for all of our surgeries and drop-in sessions. And so many of our clients nowadays are in work – they’re single-parent families or families on minimum income.”

The London hub assisted more than 10,000 cases in 2017/18, providing legal aid to those facing eviction in court, running outreach services in council offices and community settings, and providing face-to-face and telephone advice to those who contact Shelter directly.

Penny Walster, Shelter’s hub manager for Bristol, says the situation is similar in Bristol. Part of the challenge private sector tenants face is the ease with which section 21 notices can be issued. This is compounded by the reluctance of private landlords to take on a tenant receiving housing benefit, and the local housing allowance rates, which are supposed to be set at 30% of an area’s market rent levels (reduced from 50% in 2011), but are often lower still, because the local housing allowance has been frozen until 2020.

“You end up with this situation where people have to turn to letting agents or landlords who are not as scrupulous about how they look after the properties,” Walster says. “It’s a very difficult choice for some of the families we’re working with. They could sit on the housing social register … but in Bristol they’re unlikely to get something for two years. That forces them to look at the private rental sector.”

Shelter services advice

As well as offering face-to-face services in community hubs, the charity is expanding its online advice, both through advice pages and through a webchat function. This growing digital advice provision enables the charity to help 4 million people each year. Shelter’s new strategy plans for this to expand even further, ensuring that all renters can easily access the advice they need to understand and protect their rights.

Shelter will also be developing its campaigning work to fight for better rights for renters. Shelter’s campaigning priorities are directly informed by the challenges its users face, thanks in part to its service user involvement work across the country. As part of this, the charity aims to challenge the discrimination shown by those who refuse to rent properties to people receiving benefits. In an undercover investigation earlier this year, 149 regional branches belonging to six big letting agent brands were called by researchers posing as prospective tenants in receipt of housing benefit. One in 10 were found to have a branch policy not to let to anyone on housing benefit, despite over 1 million private rented households in England receiving housing benefit. Shelter believes these policies could be unlawful under the 2010 Equality Act because they disproportionately affect women and disabled people, who rely on housing benefit more often.

Shelter’s new strategy calls for alliances and working collaboratively, and the charity has just partnered with the National Housing Federation (NHF) to defend the rights of those who struggle with this prejudice. The End DSS Discrimination campaign is just one of the ways through which the organisation wants to defend people’s right to a home through building a movement for change.

Shelter is also using strategic litigation to ensure that people’s rights are defended. In 2016, single mother Rosie Keogh in Birmingham was supported by Shelter solicitors to claim sexual discrimination against a letting agent that refused to consider her as a tenant because she received state benefits. Shelter’s community organisers in major cities across the UK are working with renters to organise and campaign for new rights and to defend existing rights.

Shelter has 40 solicitors across England and Wales, who offer advice and represent service users in court who are facing eviction. The changes to legal aid, brought in by the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo), means their work typically revolves around last-minute attempts to stop possession proceedings, rather than early prevention work.

Shelter services support

“Before, pre-Laspo, we could work on the housing benefit, or the discretionary housing payment, to try and build and regularise the [client’s] income in tandem with the possession proceedings work … but now, under legal aid, we can’t do that,” says deputy legal manager Chris Walton. “It’s quite common to be dealing with possession matters days, or even hours, before the intended eviction.”

Luckily, some of the work considered out of the scope of legal aid can be funded by the charity itself, thanks to voluntary donations. That might include working to make sure the client is receiving the right benefits and their income is maximised.

“Just dealing with the crisis issue is not going to solve the problem,” says operations manager Lisa Smith. “I think there’s a [public] perception that people [in debt] are on benefits and spending money unwisely. But the common causes are relationship breakdown, ill health, loss of income, insecure employment.”

Key to tackling debt and the issues faced by private sector tenants, she adds, is addressing the stigma that stops people approaching organisations such as Shelter for help. But the underlying problems are inadequate local housing allowance rates, the rollout of universal credit – which can leave people without access to funds for at least the first four weeks – and cuts to legal aid for advice with housing benefit problems.

Landlords have to take some responsibility as well, Tovey says. Shelter is pushing for a clearer Right to Stay, starting with a three-year minimum tenancy, which will give families some sense of stability. “We’d also like to see rent increases limited to inflation,” he adds. “We’ve seen examples of rents going up by 50% and there’s no way a family can manage that.”