Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: “No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy.”
When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner responded with the claim “we’re getting overloaded with coloured people”. (He later denied he was racist and said it was a matter of economics.) The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal.
The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.
Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord’s request. One manager was filmed saying: “99% of my landlords don’t want Afro-Caribbeans.”
Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall.
First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this – but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked “where do your parents come from?”, the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.
Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord’s tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he’d had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.
My friend suspected he’d been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads).
Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion “it’s already taken”.
Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot – when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down.
Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it’s impossible to know for sure.