Two million private renters now at risk of ‘No DSS’ discrimination

Published: by Charlie Berry

A family sitting in their living room, enjoying being together.

People on housing benefit are discriminated against every day. Even when they can afford the rent, landlords and letting agents still refuse to rent to them. This kind of discrimination is unlawful, and it causes homelessness. When families are evicted, they are frozen out of large swathes of the private rental market due to illegal blanket bans against them. This must stop. 

We know the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has hit private renters disproportionately hard. Many found it difficult to keep up with their rent following being furloughed, having hours reduced or losing their jobs completely. Because of this, the number of people turning to Universal Credit housing support to keep them afloat has skyrocketed. There are now just under two million private renting households in England who receive support to pay their rent.  

Luckily the government restored the housing benefit levels for private renters back up to cover the bottom 30% of rents in every area, though changes have occurred recently. This undoubtedly kept many people in their homes safely during the public health crisis. But now, with the rental market opening and eviction ban lifting, two million households are at risk of coming face to face with discrimination when looking for a new home like they’ve never experienced – just because they now receive help for their rent.    

Throughout the pandemic, there was a huge rise in the number of people claiming housing support to pay their rent: that means that more than one in three private renters could now find themselves unlawfully locked out of homes they can afford. 

How many people receive housing benefit? 

In May 2021, there were two million privately renting households in England who received either the housing element of Universal Credit or old-style housing benefit for their rent.1 This was around 590,000 more than in February 2020, before the pandemic. Even as lockdown measures have been eased, by spring 2021 the numbers remained high. 

The private rented sector in England already has problems with affordability and unfair ‘no-fault’ evictions, but these renters receiving housing support will now also face the barrier of unlawful ‘No DSS’ discrimination that has been rife in the sector for so long. Most landlords say they do not let to or prefer not to let to housing benefit claimants, or lots are now placing extra barriers, like requiring guarantors, in front of potential tenants who receive housing support.  

While this has always been a problem, with numbers claiming housing support now higher than ever, the issue will be even more widespread. Now over one in three (36%) private-rented households are at risk of this unlawful discrimination. 

Over one-third of renters now need housing benefit to pay the rent 

Where you live affects how likely you are to find yourself in need of housing support. Some parts of the country have seen very dramatic increases and it’s not always in the places you’d necessarily expect. As the table below shows, eight of the nine regions of England have seen increases of 30% or more in the number of private renters claiming housing support. The remaining region (the North East) saw an increase of 20%. 

Region Number of private-rented households claiming support (Feb 2020) Number of private-rented households claiming support (May 2021) Increase 
North East 84,639 101,881 20% 
North West 215,505 280,070 30% 
Yorkshire and the Humber 141,771 188,230 33% 
East Midlands 99,038 140,796 42% 
West Midlands 128,974 178,296 38% 
East of England 119,886 174,092 45% 
London 278,503 462,346 66% 
South East 189,753 271,657 43% 
South West 137,643 186,383 35% 
England (total) 1,395,712 1,983,751 42% 

Source: Department for Work and Pension, Universal Credit and Housing Benefit statistics, Statexplore, accessed August 2021

London, the East and the South East together make up over half (54%) of the total increase; areas where housing costs are high and job losses will have made it particularly difficult for people to keep up with their rent. 

These increases mean that in some parts of the country, a very high proportion of private renters are now reliant on housing support and, as such, are at risk of being discriminated against. The regions with the highest proportion are the North East (44% of private renters),  West Midlands (41%) and North East (40%).2 This reflects the fact that there were already high proportions of private renters receiving housing support here even before the pandemic. 

We can also drill down into this data a bit more and look at the increases in claimants and proportions now claiming by local authority, which shows that this is not just a problem within London and the South East. Hotspots with big increases in claims across the country include Boston in Lincolnshire (up 84%), West Northamptonshire (up 72%) and the cities of Bristol (up 68%) and York (up 67%). 

Shockingly, in one in five (19%) local areas a majority of private renters are now in need of housing support. The map below shows hotspots in the north including Blackpool (89%), Burnley (67%) and Middlesbrough (62%) as well as elevated proportions of claimants in coastal areas like Great Yarmouth (74%), Tendring (74%) and Torbay (62%). 

Source: Numbers of claimants of housing support by local authority area are drawn from Department for Work and Pension, Universal Credit and Housing Benefit statistics, Statexplore, accessed August 2021. Total numbers of private renters are calculated from Office for National Statistics and English Housing Survey figures.3 

‘No DSS’ discrimination must stop 

There are now higher numbers of private renters claiming housing support than at any time since housing benefit, as it now exists, was introduced 33 years ago.4 The biggest economic crisis for generations, has resulted in more than one in three private renters now being at risk of discrimination when trying to find a home. We have challenged unlawful DSS discrimination for years - and we’re winning, but it’s time the government stepped in and provided both regulation and enforcement through the Renters’ Reform Bill to stop DSS discrimination for good. 

1 All data on numbers of households claiming support referred to in this blog are drawn from Department for Work and Pension, Universal Credit and Housing Benefit statistics, Statexplore, accessed August 2021.
2 Total numbers of private renting households by each region are calculated using data from the English Housing Survey, 2016-18. We have adjusted the total number of private renting households in each region to account for adults living in households containing multiple families or multiple lone adults, who could make individual claims for housing support.
3 Total numbers of private renters in local authority areas are calculated using Office for National Statistics, Subnational estimates of households by tenure, 2019, Table 1A. These figures are then adjusted to account for the number of adults living in households that contain multiple families or lone adults, who could make individual housing support claims, using regional data from the English Housing Survey, 2016-18.
4 UK Housing Review 2018, Table 112.