If you have ever trawled through rental properties, you have probably come across the phrase “no DSS”. An outdated fragment of jargon, it refers to the former benefits office, the Department for Social Security. The archaic description represents a long history of injustice for many tenants – which may now be at an end.
In a historic ruling, district judge Victoria Elizabeth Mark at York County Court has declared that a “no DSS” stipulation unfairly discriminated against Jane*, 44, a single mother-of-two with disabilities, on the grounds of sex and disability under the Equality Act.
Jane works part-time and was looking for a new home in October 2018 after being served with a section 21 eviction notice (a so-called no-fault eviction) from her then landlord. She was denied the chance to rent a two-bedroom house by a letting agent who cited a long-standing policy of not accepting housing benefit tenants. Jane instead became homeless and moved into a hostel.
Shelter, the homelessness charity that took on Jane’s case, estimates that “no DSS” policies have stopped hundreds of thousands of people from renting, with 63 per cent of private landlords either saying they do not, or prefer not, to rent to housing benefit claimants.
The new ruling marks the first time a “no DSS” discrimination case has been heard by a UK court. It was deemed an indirectly discriminatory policy because women and people with disabilities are more likely to be claiming housing benefit, and therefore more likely to be seeking accommodation as housing benefit claimants.
Of single adult private renters, 53.1 per cent of women claim housing benefit compared with 34 per cent of men. In terms of disabilities, 44.6 per cent of households in the private rental sector who claim Disability Living Allowance or Severe Disablement Allowance claim housing benefit compared to 15.1 per cent of households who do not claim those disability allowances.
The discriminatory aspect of “no DSS” has long kept people in homelessness and precarious housing. In 2018, I interviewed a 26-year-old former driver called Stephen Tyler who was in a wheelchair and out of work due to a car accident – at the time, he was calling 20 landlords and agents a day and living in his car because no one would take him as a tenant, due to his receipt of housing benefit. Sometimes they would simply hang up at the mention of the DSS.
Homelessness charities and campaigners for fairer housing have for years sought to overturn the policy. Two years ago, mystery shoppers were tasked by Shelter and the National Housing Federation with uncovering letting agencies that barred housing benefit claimants as standard. Five agencies were found to potentially be breaking the law with their practices, though a legal ruling was never secured.
Now, in the words of a Shelter spokesperson, this recent case is “a clear warning to other landlords and letting agents that they risk legal action if they continue to bar housing benefit tenants from renting”.
Update, 1pm 15/7/20
The minister for rough sleeping and housing Luke Hall MP comments: “Everyone should have the same opportunity when looking for a home and discriminating against someone simply because they receive benefits has no place in a modern housing market.
“That’s why we have been working with landlords and letting agents to help ensure prospective tenants are treated on an individual basis and that benefits are not seen as a barrier to giving someone a place to live.”
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.