There is Nothing Open About Open Rent or a Biased Private Housing Sector

by Dawn M. Sanders

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.

Kestrel on the roof

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 you can find similar petitions.

We must stick together.

© 2022

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Emma

    I’m Emma Johnson, who Dawn interviewed for this article. If anyone is interested, this video I link to below details exactly what happened to me and my little boy.

    I’m hoping Mr Axe, at least, will also see this comment. In short, the reason my son and I were evicted was my landlady decided, after renting to me for 2 years with no problems, that she wanted to evict me at the end of my yearly contract in order that her friend could move into the house I was living in. She lied because she knew I’d have every right to, and might, kick up a fuss if she told me the real reason. She knew it would look bad, so told me and the letting agents that she was selling up. I suspect she also told the court that as well. This was a lie. I had a perfect renting record, didn’t have any arrears in my history and got all of my deposit back, because I look after my home as if I own it. This was noted in every inspection I received while renting. In fact, the agents were so appalled that they wrote me a glowing reference to try and help me find an alternative rental property. The whole experience has mentally scarred me as well as my son, as Dawn mentioned above, we hate where we live, it’s not safe and it’s extremely unpleasant. I dont really like to have visitors as I’m ashamed of where Inow live. I have made the inside as nice as I can, and obviously I am still using the nice furniture and furnishings I had at my previous house (bought when I was earning a high wage). The point being made by Dawn in this article is the stigma of being on benefits in the rental sector. Other letting agents put the phone down on me purely because at that time I was on housing benefit, not because I was a bad tenant. Her point was that benefits discrimination is illegal. I work with a renters charity called Generation Rent as well as with the Dept for Levelling Up on this subject. They have both said that using the excuse of not being allowed to by mortgage companies or not getting insurance is not true. These are entities/organisations who know about this stuff, they have, legally, because they’re in the public eye, and working with the government on this subject. Landlords on the other hand do not have any such pressures and will say what they need to fit their narrative.


  2. Kestrel Axe

    I’m Kestrel Axe, who Dawn interviewed for this article and I am writing in response to various comments ascribed to me in the article and also in response to Emma Johnson in the comments immediately above.

    In the article it is said that I questioned the validity of Emma’s account which I saw on youtube video – but this is not so. I have no particular reason to believe that anything Emma said was untrue, and indeed it does have the ring of truth to it, many of the problems she talks about being often heard anedotally. Yes, in the youtube video (url in the comments above) Emma does make the actual position much clearer and I did see Emma’s video before I made my comments – but further investigation by myself this evening, now reveals that the video Emma provides above (titled Evicted: The grim reality of Britain’s private rental market, posted to youtube on 30 Aug 2022 and running for 8 minutes 17 seconds) was not the same as the video that Dawn provided to me before I made my comments (titled: Emma’s story, posted to youtube on 5 Aug 2022 and running for 3 minutes 41 seconds). The video that I watched was much shorter, and in it Emma made it clear that the landlady had told Emma that she needed Emma’s home back because she was selling it, and that the landlady had lied – however it did not make it at all clear what the real reason was for why the landlady wanted Emma out, hence the start of my questions.

    In terms of what the landlady told the court, her submissions would have to be in writing and are a matter of public record. Emma should be able to obtain these fairly straightforwardly using any solicitor or presumably via the housing charity she works for, and a copy of them should have been provided to her or her legal representative long before the eviction actually took place. As Emma was not in rent arrears and I have no reason to doubt her account that she was an exemplary tenant, the only grounds to evict her would be section 21 – for which the landlord does not have to give a particular reason other than the initial period of the lease (in Emma’s case one year) has expired and the landlord has declined to renew it, served the tenant with legally valid notice to leave and the tenant has not left when the notice period has expired. In that context, I have no particular reason to disagree with Emma that that the landlady may well have lied to the court, but there would appear to have been no reason to do so….as either the sale of the property or the need to give housing to a friend or no particular reason given at all would all be equally valid reasons under current section 21 legislation – and this lack of having to give of a valid reason is in itself often given as the reason why section 21 needs to be abolished or at least seriously reformed, about which I don’t particularly disagree.

    As for the landlord rent guarantee insurance I spoke about, and the problems getting that for many tenants on Housing Benefit – I can confirm from personal experience that this is an actual real problem – but that the problem is hidden. As I am quoted saying in the article, “I can get landlords rent guarantee insurance in theory on anyone, including housing benefit claimants” – and in this context the insurance companies can no doubt say that they do not discriminate against Housing Benefit tenants as their insurance is open to landlords trying to insure all types of tenants. However the reality is that in order to get the insurance everyone has to pass the credit check (which in itself is also something everyone has to do so again no discrimination) – but perhaps logically in terms of finance as to why people are on housing benefits, many if not most who are on Housing Benefits cannot pass the credit check, and therefore I can’t get landlord rent guarentee insurance on those people and therefore I will not rent to them. The same would apply even if they apparently had good jobs, good references and stacks of cash – if the credit check is not good enough for whatever reason for me to be able to get landlord rent guarantee insurance on them then I won’t rent to them. This need not be the last word on certain housing benefit claimants experiencing extreme difficulty in getting property, some landlords will try to go down the rent guarantor path, albeit that Dawn’s article clearly outlines the problems with that, while other landlords rent smaller units, often HMO rooms which have a different risk profile and allow far more potential rent per month to a landlord on a property rather than a single renter for a whole property model, which is the situation in all my rentals.

    The more financially disadvantaged end of the property market has always suffered discrimination in the private housing market, with slum landlords and dilapidated terraces long established in history. In recent years that discrimination has often been largely hidden either because of a bouyant economy, or because there has been ample replacement building of housing stock or simply because much of the less financially able end of the market has been accommodated in public rentals. However in recent years the supply of public rental stock has seriously dwindled and despite many government initiatives self-builds and small housing company builds (rather than extensions) remain rare on a national scale. and many large house building companies have seemingly preferred to build up their land banks rather than actually build substantial amounts of housing. This has obviously resulted in housing shortages. My personal solution would be to solve the housing crisis by building a few million park homes, pre-fabs and static caravans. Ones that are available all year round, fully resourced with amenities and that are of course up to modern specifications in terms of safety. These are cheap and quick to build and cost a mere fraction of all traditional brick builds. Building on this mass scale can be done – we did it in the interwar period and after world war 2 to replace slum housing and then housing destroyed in the Blitz as well as building not just new estates, but several entire new towns such as Milton Keynes, Basingstoke and Basildon. The main problems here is that as soon as the words “caravans” and “pre-fabs” are mentioned, rather than this being taken to mean the spacious 2 or 3 bedroom units on many modern retirement and holiday complexes, people think in terms of the small damp and draughty 1980s caravan they holidayed in once or the pre-fabs they remember from school that had been half kicked in by decades of use by thousands of kids traipsing in and out.


    1. admin

      In response to Kestrel Axe, yes the video on this thread is different to the one used in the article, as Ms. Johnson had not realised that shorter video didn’t include vital information to her story. I can only reiterate the points I and others made in the article, which were that people on housing benefits face discrimination and often don’t get as far as an application or credit check process.
      I’m not a builder, but I would question how environmentally friendly or sustainable a static caravan or prefab would be. Caravans are vulnerable to the elements and lack adequate insulation in my experience and yes, people often need space for various reasons.
      Dawn Sanders

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