This piece is written by ACORN Liverpool, looking back at the campaign against housing benefit discrimination that they fought and won this year.
The challenge of finding somewhere to live has only been getting harder in Liverpool. Negligible social housing stock means people have to fend for themselves in the wild west of the private rented sector, where landlords call the shots and charge extortionate rents. If you, like 41% of private renters in Liverpool, are forced to rely on benefits, the overwhelming majority of these private rents are far more expensive than you can afford through Local Housing Allowance.
But even where there do exist a few rental properties within Local Housing Allowance rate, your problems are far from over. ‘No DSS’ policies, where people in receipt of benefits are actively overlooked or excluded in their application for a rental property, remain rife in our city. Research conducted by ACORN Liverpool in July 2022 shows over 85% of rental listings in Merseyside on OpenRent explicitly exclude ‘DSS applicants’.
There are no questions about it, this is illegal. ‘No DSS’ practices have been found to be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 because they disproportionately disadvantage women, disabled people and other people with protected characteristics. Yet they continue.
And even where landlords and letting agents are savvy enough to not say overtly that they’re excluding people in receipt of benefits, they find ways to do so covertly. It is essentially standard practice for letting agents to insist on guarantors or excessive upfront rent payments for those on benefits. In addition, they often impose affordability checks that automatically fail benefit recipients or they may point to exclusionary insurance company rules. Frequently, they won’t even go to the trouble of these charades, they’ll just not reply or conduct a viewing with no intention of renting to the applicant.
We heard it from the horse’s mouth when we conducted undercover calls to letting agents and they explained to us how they can avoid renting to people on benefits.
Here at ACORN Liverpool, we take direct action to get justice in our communities. So we took to the streets to demand action from Liverpool City Council on this issue. We insisted that they create a system for the public to report instances of housing benefit discrimination and that they equip council officers to investigate, respond and issue penalties to culpable landlords and letting agents. We insisted too that Council agree to act as guarantors and also provide greater assistance with deposit payments for rental applicants in receipt of benefits. These measures would make a huge difference to people’s ability to find a safe, affordable home, which is, after all, a human right.
Over 500 people signed our petition for action. Protests in the streets and online pushed the issue up the Council’s agenda, and eventually culminated in our demands being unanimously passed in a Council motion in July 2022.
We rightly celebrated as these commitments have the potential for a massive shift in power towards tenants. But the win only counts when the action is implemented, so ACORN Liverpool will continue to hold Council accountable on their promises.
Unwilling to rely purely on the action of the Council though, we organised for 30 of our members to go directly to the letting agent offices and demand they too sign a pledge to stop discriminating against people in receipt of benefits. Some letting agents signed the pledge; some claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, to ‘already never discriminate’; some made limp excuses; and one even told us to leave the premises or they’d call the police. This was all unsurprising. The important outcome for us was that the letting agents know we’re onto them and that they can’t get away with this discrimination anymore. The sentiment was clear: direct action works. Housing is our right and we must insist on this.
The branch is now moving onto a new campaign, promoting awareness of housing rights through reach-out sessions in community centres around Liverpool. We also continue to take action day-in-day-out for our members where they have been unfairly treated by landlords and letting agents.
We need community unions more than ever. Rents are rising, as are bills and costs. Poverty is endemic, whilst the rich get richer. It is only through collective action that we can take back what’s rightly ours. Join ACORN for yourself, and your community.