6 months ago, I started looking to move closer to my 25-year-old son who has complex additional needs, as I’m his only family in the country and vice versa. I moved down south to Exeter, where it was highly recommended for its vocational and educational opportunities for people with my son’s needs – not to mention the better quality of life as he is still in Sheffield, stuck in a stagnant situation. However, both the public and private sectors have proven impossible to penetrate, as I’m on a fixed income and like millions of others up and down the country, face stigma or prejudices, particularly within the private sector.
I set to work checking out Chesterfield, a town within close proximity to my son – having met a friend there, seemed a good foothold. I made my case to the council – managing to get my name on the housing list as medium category C, considering my age, visual impairment and encroaching arthritis. However, it has proven impossible – I’m not physically there, there are people who have waited for years and the bidding system potential council tenants face, can only be described as ludicrous. When looking for the most suitable property within an extremely limited stock and overly subscribed demand, you might place a bid which falls in the queue as, 50 out of 100 – so what might sound as the perfect home, will be out-of-reach. Unless in extreme circumstances – homelessness, in an abusive relationship or facing eviction by a private landlord, bidding for public housing is pointless.
Often, people are faced with going into the private sector, where stability is precarious – especially with the current climate of gentrification and other discriminating factors associated with being on a low/fixed income. In this article, it points to the blanket restriction of ‘no DSS’ still often advertised within private lettings, as illegal. However, not only do I still see this – what is often substituted, is ‘working applicants preferred’ a thinly veiled attempt to get around or stop short of, specifying ‘no DSS.’ Department of Social Services (DSS) hasn’t existed for over 20 years, but still carries all the stigmas of those on housing benefits (HB). There are other ways letting agents easily get around not renting to people on low incomes – often a guarantor is required if on HB, but it must be known how nearly impossible this will be for most. First – a guarantor must earn 3 times the rent of a potential tenant to be considered, a tall order for most working people; Second – most guarantors unless family in my experience would see themselves as risking too much, due to the implications. Yet, landlords seem set against the philosophy that, any job could be here one day and disappear the next – especially with a gig economy or cut-backs. I’ve been on HB since 1993, not out of choice, but due to my circumstances and I’ve never missed the rent. According to Open Rent, the scrapping of referencing or admin fees by letting agents, came into force in June, 2019 – seemingly making renting fairer and more accessible, but it’s just not the case. There appear to be several paid services for landlords, such as referencing, rent collection, gas safety checks or contracts. Yet, few services for tenants other than listings or getting through to a landlord, but again in my experience, 80% of the time they don’t respond. When answering an ad, whether from Zoopla, Rightmove or PrimeLocation – you get through to Open Rent. An automated voice asks for the reference number of the property and eventually gives the opportunity to leave your message. I once got a random message that 33% of the properties listed on Open Rent specify that ‘applicants on DSS’ may apply, so that would mean less than half the listings. I spoke to a woman more than once and recognising me, she said, ‘are you the lady on housing benefits?’ When I said yes, annoyed at her discriminating tone, she stressed incorrectly – housing benefits were not accepted on Open Rent and I should know this, with a symbol next to certain listings. However, an argument erupted when I reminded her that specifying ‘no DSS’ was illegal. When I asked my assistant about the symbol, she said there was nothing like that on any ads. Open Rent didn’t return my message for comments on this article. The small percentage of properties advertised by letting agents, is when the ‘real problems’ begin.
“I’m definitely going to be shouting for as long as I can… I know I’m not alone.” said Emma Johnson, a single mum from Crawley, West Sussex, who has told her story here. Expanding on her situation, she explains how she found out her former landlady lied about selling her previously rented house she shared with her then 7-year-old son, because of how people behaved when showing them around. Being upset with losing what she later described as, her dream home, people were asking about furnishings and whether certain things were staying. The letting agency later informed her, the landlady was in fact only renting. The next thing Johnson knew, she was being taken to court via post. When she moved in, she made it clear she wasn’t working and paid nearly £10,000 in 6 months’ rent upfront. At the time of the court hearing, she received no help or advice of her rights – putting forward her case that she had always paid her rent on time and hadn’t trashed her place. “I was ‘so angry’ that Shelter (housing charity) hadn’t helped me – all these posts were coming up on Facebook about Shelter, so that’s when I started telling my story online, all over the place.” She said: “It’s not just housing issues. Anyone who takes benefits is looked down upon, as there are class issues in this country – some might make a lifestyle out of it, but most have no choice.” Working since leaving college from a low wage upward, but with a cascading situation of divorcing her husband, worsening health issues and having a baby, she took 3 years off. Eventually rehoused by Crawley council. Despite feeling grateful at the time, there is no outdoor space, no other children in the neighbourhood, just elderly people and a lot of drugs. “We hate it here, there are drugs all around us. The woman downstairs smokes cannabis 24/7 and puts a blue cross in her window when she wants her dealer to sell her more… The smell of drugs, the rubbish everywhere, the dog poo… I don’t want to be here; I didn’t choose to be here and feel a lot of anxiety about people turning up.” She spoke of being frozen out of the private sector and terrified of it happening again and what she felt of landlords: “most landlords are greedy, A-moral, selfish, inconsiderate and need a serious check on how they look upon their property. It isn’t just property, like a washing machine or car – it’s a property somebody lives in, but until they’re forced to act decently and what they’re actually doing – things won’t change.”
Photos supplied by Emma Johnson
After having watched Johnson’s video story and her not detailing every in/out of the situation, Kestrel Axe, a landlord owning 9 properties based in Essex, Cambridge and the West Midlands questions the validity of Johnson’s account: “Given that the landlord selling up was a lie, what was the real reason why the landlord seemingly suddenly wanted the tenant out despite the fact she was regularly paying? What reason would a landlord have for being so determined to do that? And was it the same reason no other local landlord or agency could be found to even consider her, the phone even being put down on her?” Axe is possibly missing the point – this didn’t just happen to Johnson; it happens all the time and Johnson’s story provides an example of how private tenants are often treated. Does the above statement appreciate the sheer scale of stigma faced by those on housing benefits? Could anyone reading it detect an underlying suspicion? Referring to reasons why landlords might not let to those on housing benefits, Axe agrees with the points highlighted in the above parliamentary briefing and the onslaught of gentrification. However, says: “In my own experience the key reasons for private landlords to be reluctant to let to those on benefits are to do with inability to get insurance. I can get landlord rent guarantee insurance on anyone in theory, including Housing Benefit claimants, but they must pass the credit check which requires verified evidence of a certain level of income. There is no wriggle room. If I can get rent guarantee insurance, which I pay for, then I will rent to you, if not then I will not.” He continues by referencing the aforementioned Local Housing Allowance (LHA) as set by the government, but not matching current rents.
Landlords who do their own repairs save money.
99% of the time, I don’t even get as far as an affordability check. If it happens, agents tend to skim through it at breakneck speed, to say they’ve done it, but don’t actually take on board unique circumstances or the fact in my case, I’m paying nearly £200 out of my monthly budget on my current top-up after HB for my flat – anything less is small potatoes and I would be in a good position to pay.
Johnson isn’t the only one getting treated briskly by agents or landlords – I’ve experienced it and so have thousands of others. The minute you tell an agent you’re on HB their whole demeanour changes, they treat you like shit-on-their-shoes and you often don’t get as far as the application. Adequate housing is a basic human need and human right. People like Johnson should never feel stigmatised for where she lives or grateful for somewhere unsuitable for her child. For me, I’ve given up on moving closer to my son, but access to family life is also a human right and I’ll go back to my original plan of moving mountains to get my son to Devon for the better quality of life he deserves. This issue has been covered extensively in both the mainstream and independent media, but until governments make the environment for renters on benefits less hostile or social cleansing disappears, we will need to keep banging the drum to be heard. As Johnson says: “I’m definitely going to be shouting for as long as I can… I know I’m not alone.”
Editor’s note: If you have had a similar experience to the points raised in this article, comment, share, and sign similar petitions. Emma Johnson’s petition is unfortunately no longer available, but on gov.uk you can find similar petitions.
We must stick together.