Prejudice in practice: the many faces of discrimination in the private rented sector 

Prejudice in practice: the many faces of discrimination in the private rented sector 

There has never been a more crucial 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. 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.’1

Discrimination has no home in the private rented sector. In the prejudice in practice series, we’ll shine a light on the various forms discrimination takes, the mechanisms that allow it to persist, and the tangible solutions that can stop it in its tracks.

Join our campaign to put an end to discrimination in the private rented sector.

Families with children

The number of families in the private rented sector has rocketed in the last 20 years, nearly tripling in size. Today, government figures show that 1.4 million families, 31% of households, in the private rented sector include dependent children.

The insecurity of rented housing poses challenges for families with children, who need consistent, long-term access to local networks, services, facilities, and a secure and stable home environment where their children can thrive.

Housing insecurity, poor conditions and frequent moves characterise private renting. These factors have well-documented and potentially detrimental impacts on children’s health, happiness and prospects, highlighted in this Children’s Society report. As rents continue to rise, more families face impossible choices between leaving their homes, cutting back on essentials, or taking on debt.

In the worst cases, the insecurity of the private rented sector results in homelessness. Our research report has shown the devastating impact this can have on a child’s education.

While families with children face unique challenges in finding and keeping a suitable home, they’re also presented with barriers from the outset that block them from even getting their foot in the door.

Professional couples only

Families have had the displeasure of learning that landlord preferences and prejudices are seen as more important than their need for a safe and stable home. Over 110,000 families have been unable to rent a home they wanted in the past five years simply because they have children.2

The use of blanket rules that discriminate against particular groups is unlawful under the Equalities Act, but despite several successful court cases challenging these practices, landlords and letting agents still appear to be comfortable flouting the rules. Euphemistic language, such as ‘working professionals’ or ‘professional couples’, is often used as a thinly veiled attempt to keep families with children out of their properties.

These restrictions hinder families in their search for a home. 40% of families with children needed longer than two months to find a new privately rented property, compared to 31% of households without children.

Families in receipt of benefits

Families are disproportionately likely to face additional hurdles relating to their benefit status.

52% of landlords have admitted that they would not or prefer not to rent to people in receipt of housing benefits. For families, the likelihood of falling foul of these policies is greatly increased. Government statistics show that nearly half of all households with dependent children in the private rented sector receive housing support

According to our research, families with children are 66% more likely to be told by a landlord or agent that the rent would be too expensive for them, or that they have failed a referencing check. Tenant referencing and affordability checks are a shadowy and unregulated business which legitimises benefits discrimination by putting arbitrary affordability thresholds on applicants, and often discounting benefits as a source of income. Benefits prejudice is, in effect, legitimised by tenant referencing companies, enabling landlords to turn away applicants who could afford the rent.

Invisible barriers

On top of these direct prohibitions, families with children are also particularly vulnerable to the more covert strategies used to exclude particular groups from housing.

Families with children are twice as likely to be unable to rent somewhere because they can’t find a guarantor, compared to renters without children. Few people from low-income households will know someone who can afford to absorb the risk of being a guarantor, especially when specific criteria must be met, such as earning above the threshold of a certain salary bracket or being a homeowner.

Families with children are almost twice as likely than those without to be asked for rent in advance of six months or more. 12% of families with children were unable to rent a home they would have wanted in the last five years because they could not afford the rent in advance, compared to 8% of households without children. Data from the English Housing Survey highlights that private renters with children are highly unlikely to have any savings, and therefore extortionate rent in advance demands can make it impossible to secure a home.

The Renters (Reform) Bill

The government has committed to tackling particular forms of discrimination through the Renters (Reform) Bill, which will outlaw blanket bans against families with children and tenants in receipt of benefits. This is an important and necessary first step in tackling discrimination in the sector. However, it still leaves opportunities wide open for landlords and agents to exploit, such as asking for multiple months’ rent in advance, and that renters appoint a high-earning guarantor.

This is why we’re 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.

For families in particular, this could be life-changing. Recently, the number of children who are homeless has reached a record high, with over 139,000 children living in damaging temporary accommodation. The reluctance of landlords to accept families pushes them towards homelessness.

Discrimination in the private rented sector will only be solved when the furtive strategies that exclude people from housing, such as asking for high levels of rent in advance or insisting on a guarantor, are removed. If these barriers are not dismantled, discrimination in the private rented sector will only continue to thrive.

Do you agree that the government needs to end discrimination in the private rented sector for good? Have you joined our campaign? Sign our petition today.

  1. This figure is from a YouGov survey of private landlords in England. The total sample size was 1,007 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 14 – 26 July 2023. The survey was conducted online. ↩︎
  2. 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 surveys were funded by The Co-operative Bank who is campaigning with Shelter for the transformation of private renting for good, and the delivery of a robust Renters Reform Bill. The campaign amplifies the voices of their supporters and customers, to protect those facing the imminent threat of housing insecurity and homelessness. ↩︎