Among a growing number of organisations campaigning for the rights of private renters is London Renters Union (LRU), a union for people who rent privately, and who work to support members from across the capital.
Like Shelter, LRU come across cases of DSS discrimination every day. In the guest blog written by one of their members, you’ll find just one story of how they helped a member facing this prejudice.
You can join the campaign to tackle this issue across the country by signing our petition to end DSS discrimination.
Since London Renters Union was founded in 2018, our members have been taking action to transform the housing system from the bottom-up. We now have over 1,000 members and branches in Hackney, Lewisham, Leytonstone and Newham. Mary’s story, her success, and the support she’s received as a member of LRU, is typical of the work we do.
We met Mary in the summer of 2018 when she joined us at an LRU outreach event and shared her story. She lives alone in Wickford, Essex, but was hoping to move to Redbridge, where her twin sister lives. Mary suffers with anxiety and depression. Being close to her last remaining family member had become increasingly important to her.
Like many private renters who receive Housing Benefit to cover part or all of their rent, Mary found it difficult to find a landlord willing to let to a so-called ‘DSS renter’. She eventually approached Advance Estates (now known as Advance Glenisters) in Romford, who offered her a flat with a long-term contract.
Mary was hopeful this would become her new home, but as negotiation with Advance developed, the situation became more complicated. The estate agent wanted a guarantor in order to let the property, but she was unable to find anyone ‘suitable’ (that is, someone who earned over £28,800 annually). As a result, Advance insisted that Mary pay six months of rent up front in order to secure the tenancy. This amounted to a lump sum of £4,800.
Understandably, she was desperate to take the property and managed to borrow the money from various friends and family. On 26 March 2018, before Mary had even seen the tenancy agreement, Advance took the full £4,800 from her together with an £800 deposit. Since she’d already paid £570 in agency fees, the total sum Mary paid to secure the flat was a staggering £6,170. Three days later, Mary was finally shown the tenancy agreement and informed that if she did not sign it, she would not only lose the property, but also the £800 deposit.
Over a marathon four-hour meeting on 29 March, Mary says that she was bullied into signing the agreement, despite being in clear distress. Her friend Rodney, who accompanied her to the meeting, describes how she was told by one of Advance’s staff: ‘I’m going on a holiday, I’ve got a plane to catch. You’ve got 15 minutes to sign this tenancy agreement.’
Mary eventually signed the agreement out of fear that she would lose the flat, but it soon became clear that she would be evicted after just six months unless she could find another lump sum up front. As unfair as this sounds, landlords are legally entitled to seek possession of properties using Section 21 eviction notices, which means they can evict tenants even if there are no rent arrears. This practice has become all too common for private renters, who regularly find themselves facing eviction through no fault of their own.
Thanks to the organising of the London Renters Union in coalition with other groups, the government announced in mid-April that Section 21 will be scrapped. However, with a consultation looming and no immediate suspension, renters are still facing situations like Mary’s every day.
Advance admit that demanding 6 months worth of rent up front is their standard practice for tenants who receive Housing Benefit, despite knowing that those on low incomes find it extremely difficult to pay lump sums upfront. Mary was terrified of being evicted and knew she’d be unable to find the same amount of money a second time, so on 13 April she visited Advance’s offices, informing them that she would not be moving into the flat and wanted her money returned. Advance flat out refused to return Mary’s money and did so repeatedly on numerous subsequent attempts she made to recover it. For the next year, Mary was in over £5,000 of debt for a flat she never moved into.
Fighting and winning
As renters who face the same injustices, LRU believe in collectively standing up to landlords and letting agents, taking direct action to win the living conditions we deserve. When Mary contacted us, our members organised a campaign to recover her money. We wrote to Advance repeatedly and lobbied her MP for support. We blockaded their phones and picketed their offices. We refused to take no for an answer. And last Friday, after weeks of pressure from LRU, Advance finally caved and agree to pay back £4,800 plus the £570 administration fee. After enduring a year of torment, Mary finally has justice.
This case is about more than just Mary. It shows how our housing system is stacked against renters in favour of landlords and letting agents. The discriminatory practice of ‘no DSS’ forces those who receive Housing Benefit into highly exploitative situations because they have no other choice, while Section 21 removes any hope of long-term security. It is for these reasons that eviction by private landlords is the leading cause of homelessness in the UK.
While we recognise that cases such as Mary’s are ultimately the product of a broken housing system, we also believe it is the responsibility of those who profit from this system to be held to account. That’s why we took action against Advance Glenisters, and that’s why we’ll do it again to support any of our members who’ve been ripped off.
Get involved and transform our housing system
London Renters Union can only win cases like Mary’s because of our members. We aim to win many more cases like this, and ultimately want to win decent, secure and genuinely affordable homes for all Londoners. To do that we need to keep building our campaigning union. You can join us here and find out about our forthcoming events here.