The battle against the discriminatory practice of landlords not renting to benefit claimants has intensified after legal victories by two single mothers.
Amanda Staples and Emma Loffler both won out-of-court settlements against "No DSS" letting agents, on the grounds of indirect discrimination.
In a 2018 case, another single mother, Rosie Keogh, backed by charity Shelter, successfully argued blanket bans on claimants indirectly discriminated against women and disabled people who are more likely to be on benefits.
Ms Keogh's case was cited in letters of complaint Ms Staples and Ms Loffler wrote to different letting agents who had refused to show them properties.
Shelter took on their legal cases when the agents refused to budge.
Ms Staples, 36, who has three primary-aged children, needed accommodation after her marriage broke down.
"I kept ringing around estate agents and when I said I would be a housing benefit [claimant] it was a blanket 'No,'" she said.
When a property came up in the Cambridgeshire village she was based in, she was initially excited but then hit a wall.
"I had noticed 'No DSS' adverts before but I thought I would be able to find somewhere locally so my children could still go to the same school and so I could keep my job there," she said.
"It was really uncomfortable to keep having to explain my personal circumstances to strangers.
"The whole thing was so difficult - I was working part time, I've always paid my rent, I had a child-maintenance order, and I ended up on benefits because of the divorce and because I had three children."
Ms Staples offered to pay six months' rent up-front, and then 12 months' after an offer of a loan from her father, but the letting agent kept saying the landlord's insurance did not cover tenants on benefits.
She said: "After a while, talking to this one particular estate agent, I just said; 'Nothing I say is going to make any difference is it?' And he said, 'No.'"
With Shelter backing her legal action, the letting agent ultimately agreed to write a public letter of apology and to pay £3,000 compensation and the £10,000 legal costs.
The agent in Ms Loffler's case, meanwhile, also issued a public letter of apology and paid £3,500 compensation and £2,500 towards legal costs.
Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said: "The message is clear - letting agents and landlords must not treat potential tenants as second-class citizens simply because they rely on benefits.
"If they continue to blindly discriminate against those receiving housing benefit, they risk legal action and a hefty fine.
"Not only is 'No DSS' discrimination outdated and grossly unfair, it is unlawful under the Equality Act because it overwhelming impacts women and disabled people, who are more likely to need support paying their rent."
The housing charity analysed 7,100 adverts on the biggest letting agent websites, including OpenRent, Rightmove, Countrywide and Zoopla, and found more than one in 10 contained phrases such as "No DSS" or similar.
Agents and landlords could face fines of about £5,000 per advert based on the three payouts made in cases so far, it said.
But a poll of 1,009 private landlords for the charity by YouGov in December 2019 and January 2020 revealed:
- 86% thought "No DSS" was lawful or were not sure
- 29% said they did not currently let to people receiving housing benefit and were advised not to by their letting agent
The Residential Landlords Association urged the government to:
- stop lenders preventing a landlord from renting to benefit claimants as a condition of their buy-to-let mortgage,
- align housing benefit with local rent levels
- restore the right of tenants to choose to have the housing element of their benefit paid directly to their landlord
How to fight 'No DSS' landlords and letting agents
- Keep a written note of phone and face-to-face conversations if you start to hear a "No DSS" message. Hold on to any emails.
- Ensure there is no other reason the agent will not let you rent
- Provide agents with evidence of previous reliability and ability to pay with housing benefit
- Contact Shelter for support
You can hear more on this by listening to BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme here.