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A recent undercover investigation by Shelter and the National Housing Federation found a number of letting agents discriminating against tenants on housing benefits.

Here’s a look at what the investigation found and what the law says about the situation.

The undercover investigation was widely reported in August by the BBC, ITV and many major newspapers. The findings led to a public outcry and calls for the government to look into the issue and provide more protection for tenants.

What Did the Study Find?

Shelter and the National Housing Federation called 149 regional letting agent branches across England, and found five major letting agents discriminate against tenants on housing benefits. These tenants, who admitted to be claiming housing benefit, were turned down by these agents because of this.

The investigation named Haart, Bridgefords, and Dexters as being among the worst offenders, although the published report said almost half of all the branches contacted had said they don’t have suitable properties to let.

What is Behind the Problem?

According to the report, the big problem is the lack of affordable housing and, more specifically, the shortfall in social housing. This has led to nearly 1.64 million adults in the UK relying on housing benefits to pay for private rents.

The letting agent body, ARLA Propertymark, commented on the investigation’s findings.

Chief Executive David Cox said the way housing payments are received in arrears influences landlords’ willingness to choose a tenant on housing benefits. Cox said, “We have called on the government time and time again to resolve this problem. But our calls have fallen on deaf ears.”

The issue is not a simple question of allowing or declining for landlords. Private landlords can be forced to reject tenants on housing benefits due to lender clauses. Many buy-to-let mortgages come with a clause that prevents landlords from letting homes to housing benefit claimants, while rent protection and guarantee insurance will often have similar conditions attached.

What Does the Law Say?
These findings, although alarming, are not automatically a breach of the law. According to anti-discrimination legislation, income or employment are not protected grounds.

However, there is some concern about what could be happening is indirect discrimination, which could be a punishable act. This is down to many housing benefit claimants being predominantly female or from another minority group. The problem is this kind of indirect discrimination is not illegal when it can be reasonably justified. A landlord with a mortgage clause preventing them from letting to housing benefit claimants is a valid reason for not choosing that particular tenant.

What Should Happen in the Future?

Many experts are calling for the government to get serious in tackling the housing problem. Not only could a revamp of the housing benefit system help, as Arla Propertymark is calling for, but building more affordable housing and increasing the supply of social housing should be considered.

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By Sandra Mpouma
21 Nov 2018

Categories: Housing Benefit, Letting Agents

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