There’s been some good news this month for people facing discrimination in the private rental market – because of how they pay their rent, or because of who they are.
Buy-to-let mortgage conditions
First, Natwest announced that it would lift “all restrictions on landlords renting to tenants who are in receipt of housing benefits”.
The announcement followed the revelation last autumn that Natwest had asked one of its borrowers to evict a tenant who was receiving housing benefit. The landlord, Helena McAleer, started a petition that has gathered more than 5000 signatures.
It defied belief that the bank, 62% of which is owned by the taxpayer, could be behaving at odds with the interests of its owners. We wrote to UK Government Investments to ask them to have a word, while our friends at ACORN, London Renters Union and Living Rent Scotland demonstrated outside branches up and down the country.
Natwest announced a review and consulted with Shelter, which has been campaigning hard on benefits discrimination, getting it raised recently at Prime Minister’s Questions. In its review, the bank also decided to relax its restrictions on the length of tenancies its customers can offer – up from 1 year to 3 years. This has been seen as an obstacle to reforming tenancies – though as we’ve seen in Scotland, banks will scrap these kinds of restrictions if the government goes ahead and changes the law.
“No DSS” ads
The second development came from the government itself, which followed up the Natwest news almost immediately with a promise to consult with the housing sector “to develop ways to stop the unfair exclusion of tenants in receipt of housing support” and “eradicate” practices such as “No DSS” adverts.
This casual dismissal of around a quarter of private renters from consideration for the home being advertised is a source of huge stress, especially when the rent is eminently affordable once housing support is taken into account. It's potentially against the law as it tends to affect women and people with disabilities more. (It is also a source of annoyance for the pedants among us who know the Department for Social Security hasn’t existed for 18 years.)
Right to Rent checks
Finally, in bad news for the government, the High Court struck down its requirement on landlords to check that would-be tenants have a “Right to Rent” based on their nationality or migration status.
The scheme forces landlords – who are not trained, or indeed paid, as border guards – to verify migration documents – with the threat of jail if they get it wrong. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, along with Liberty, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Residential Landlords Association argued that this made it likely that some landlords would simply refuse to let to non-UK nationals, or even British citizens without passports or with minority ethnic backgrounds. We've known about this a long time, but finally a judge has agreed.
As with the Windrush scandal that came to light last year, the government’s policies to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants have inadvertently created a hostile environment for anyone who has to rent but whose name, accent or appearance just happens to be different.
The government can appeal before they have to start dismantling this policy – though in @NearlyLegal’s view their chances of success are slim.