Continued housing discrimination sparks protest in Wandsworth

Protestors in Wandsworth claim hundreds of benefit claimants are facing housing discrimination despite current UK equality laws.

Campaigners from the Wandsworth Housing Action (WHA) group, an offset of the left-wing movement Momentum, visited a Tooting Bec real estate agency on Saturday 10th April to protest DSS discrimination.

DSS refers to the Department of Social Security, a governmental agency that was replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2001.

The initialisation is still used informally to describe prospective tenants who would be paying their rent by means of Housing Benefit or Universal Credit.

The socially distanced protest was part of a wider series of protests across the country organised by Momentum’s national campaign to end eviction during the pandemic.

WHA’s target for this weekend’s protest was RS Estates, which the group claim are allowing property listings with “No DSS” or “No —”.

In July 2020 a landmark court ruling confirmed that such listings are unlawful and in breach of the Equality Act.

Andrea Gilbert, Co-Lead of WHA said: “We had already visited RS Estates on 27th March. We went with a pledge to end DSS discrimination and asked if they could sign it.

“They didn’t want to sign it.”

A RS Estates spokesperson confirmed: “We are not agreeing to sign any pledge. We are a commercial organisation and we protect the interest of our tenants as well as our landlords.

“Wherever it’s possible, we do accept tenants who are in receipt of housing benefits.”

PROTESTS: Members of the WHA make their stand. Credit: Izzy Romilly

Gilbert returned with other WHA members on the 10th April.

She said: “I bought the megaphone and was ringing the alarm for ages. As soon as we went up to the RS Estates door, the staff member was really rude and stuck her middle finger up at us.

“She refused to speak to us. When someone finally spoke to us we were told that every estate agent is doing this, they’re not the only one.

“There was no sympathy for this. They do not care.”

A RS Estates spokesperson responded: “We do not condone this behaviour but we are also mindful of the fact that the unwarranted protests have caused anxiety and harassment amongst our members of staff.

“We endeavour to provide decent housing to all the tenants irrespective of the funding of their rent, but such groups cannot intimidate a legitimate business to bow to their demands.”

The real estate agent also claimed that protesters shouted unreasonable slogans and vandalised their place of work.

Who else is listing No DSS?

RS Estates is not the only site which lists No DSS properties in Wandsworth, as online letting agent OpenRent currently lists 738 properties in the borough.

Only 17% are listed as accepting DSS, despite this being a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

WHA are also calling on OpenRent to remove “DSS not accepted” from their listings, and explicitly advise landlords they should not discriminate against DSS claimants.

Adam Hyslop, Founder of OpenRent, said: “We recommend landlords consider all prospective tenants, and provide guidance via our support teams and website to this effect.

“However there are contractual and legal reasons which prevent landlords from letting their properties to benefit claimants, eg referencing requirements, landlord insurance terms, mortgage terms, etc.

“Where landlords tell us this is the case, we believe it’s important to be transparent about these.

“The alternative is that tenants have the frustrating experience of enquiring about the property, potentially investing more time viewing the property and undertaking referencing, only to find that the tenancy can’t go ahead.”

Decades of Discrimination

Tooting resident Ella, 28, has faced housing discrimination in South London for over 11 years.

She said: “My first experience of DSS discrimination was when I was 17. I had found out that I was pregnant and needed to find a flat that I could live in once my baby was born.

“It took me six months to find a landlord that was willing to accept a tenant on housing benefits. I began the process for moving in, put down my deposit and had my references done, I had a move-in date and had packed my life into boxes ready to go.

“A few days before I went to sign the tenancy agreement, the landlord pulled out, stating that he’d been advised not to accept a tenant on benefits so he wasn’t going to go ahead with the agreement. I lost money because of that, the agents fees and reference checks.

“It really set me back and I was heavily pregnant. It took a further nine months to find a landlord that would accept me.”

Housing discrimination disproportionately affects groups like women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

In July 2020, district judge Victoria Elizabeth Mark declared: “Rejecting tenancy applications because the applicant is in receipt of housing benefit was unlawfully indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability, contrary to the Equality Act 2010.”

Despite this ruling, numerous renting sites continue to list “No DSS”.

Ella said: “DSS discrimination makes it seem as if the people with the least access to money are the problem, but the problem is structural and wide spread.

“The problem is stigma and policies that are built for the middle class instead of the working class. 

“Throughout my adult life I’ve been left feeling that my life and the life of my daughter are worth less than money, and that we don’t matter in the same way that someone on a higher income does.”

This feeling is what WHA is trying to eliminate.

The housing group’s Twitter page links to a petition and template letters so Wandsworth residents can contact their local MP and councillors regarding DSS discrimination.

Andrea explains: “This isn’t a one day action.

“We’re not asking anyone to leave, we’re not asking anyone to sacrifice their wages.

“We’re just asking for a stop No DSS listings so we can give everybody the chance to have a home in our borough.”

Featured image credit: Izzy Romilly

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