Members of Acorn Liverpool held up placards with the estate agents’ responses on them as the council passed its motion this week. Image: Acorn Liverpool
Rent campaigners have gone undercover to catch out estate agents who say they won’t rent to people on benefits – and now it has inspired councillors in Liverpool to crack down on the issue.
Members of Acorn tenants union in Liverpool posed as landlords in phone calls to test estate agents’ attitudes to renters receiving housing benefits. Specifying that people on benefits cannot rent a property, commonly known as “No DSS”, is classed as discrimination and has previously been ruled unlawful.
But the practice has remained widespread, as Acorn discovered. The tenants union also found up to 80 per cent of rental listings in Merseyside posted on OpenRent in May 2022 excluded renters in receipt of benefits.
In Acorn recordings, one estate agent can be heard saying: “What we’re not allowed to do is we’re not allowed unfortunately – and it’s by law – we’re not allowed to say ‘no housing benefit’.”
Two agents said they “avoid” or “stay away” from people on benefits with one adding: “It sounds horrible doesn’t it?”
In another recording, an estate agent said: “If you are looking at higher rent, you’re probably going to avoid housing benefit tenants anyway, we do have quite a strict referencing criteria.”
Acorn representatives were also told: “Yeah of course you can avoid them you just can’t advertise that. It’s classed as discrimination.”
Martin Mawdsley, Acorn Liverpool’s communications officer, told The Big Issue: “We pretended to be prospective landlords, inexperienced and just coming into it.
“Some of them were shocking. We were expecting to catch them because we know it goes on. But it was shocking that they would say they are not meant to be doing it but they do it anyway.”
Two court rulings in England have established a blanket ban on discriminating against people who are in receipt of benefits. Major property sites including Rightmove and Zoopla pledged to ban the practice in 2019 but the issue is still prevalent in the private rented sector.
Now Acorn’s undercover work has seen councillors in Liverpool back a motion to eliminate housing benefit discimination from the city.
Councillor Sarah Doyle, Liverpool City Council’s cabinet member for housing, raised the motion at Wednesday’s full council meeting where it received unanimous backing.
The council will now establish and promote a system to allow the public to report discrimination and councillors will also explore a licensing scheme to fine landlords if they are guilty of discrimination.
Data on the prevalence of housing benefit discrimination will also be published while the council will also sign Acorn’s open letter to letting agents and landlords warning against discriminating against tenants in receipt of benefits.
The council will also write to the housing secretary Greg Clark calling for more powers to tackle the issue and raise local housing allowance in line with market rates.
The Labour councillor added: “I hope that with the passing of this motion Liverpool City Council is sending a clear message that access to a decent, safe home is not a luxury but a right that should not be refused on the basis of income.”
The decision to pass the motion, which was developed with the help of housing charity Shelter, means Liverpool follows Bristol, Oxford and Brighton and Hove in taking similar action against the discrimination.
Mawdsley welcomed the council’s passing of the motion and now the Acorn group plans to go back to the estate agents they contacted to force change.
“It’s really good news, but we also have to wait to make sure that the council actually do implement the practices and the policies we outlined in the motion,” said Mawdsley.
“The plan now is to go back to these estate agents and say: ‘Look, the council has passed this motion, are you going to pledge to behave yourselves? Are you going to allow people on benefits to rent? Are you going to be open and transparent with us? Or are we going to have to name and shame you?’.”