People with assistance dogs are being illegally discriminated against when trying to find a home
It’s against the law for landlords to ban assistance dogs, yet many disabled handlers regularly face discrimination
by: George Francis Lee
23 Aug 2023
Kitto Haywood and Starry, their assistance dog. Image: Ezzthetic Photography
“We always lint roll our clothes,” Kitto Haywood says, stroking their dog Starry, a one-year-old female borzoi. “We wash everything so there’s no dog smell and never wear anything dark.”
Starry is tall and strikingly ginger – a hard dog to hide. Passers-by coo and take photos of her, but her focus is firmly on her disabled handler. Haywood, who is non-binary and lives in Manchester, is facing homelessness after being issued a Section 21 eviction notice when they couldn’t afford a rent increase. But they say discrimination against their assistance dog is stopping them from finding a new home.
“Our landlord raised our rent by £400 a month. We can’t afford it and need to find somewhere else, but it’s impossible. Whenever Starry has been mentioned, it’s just: ‘Sorry we’ve got no viewings left,’ or ‘No dogs!’ And when we tell them the law they say, ‘Oh, well we’ll speak to the landlord about that.’”
According to the think tank Centre For Cities, the UK has a deficit of 4.3 million homes when compared to the average European country – meaning that rental properties are in high demand. For renters with animals, it’s even harder. According to Dogs Trust, 78% of pet owners struggle to find pet-friendly accommodation.
But, unlike pets, it is illegal for landlords to ban assistance dogs under the Equality Act 2010. Haywood is one of many disabled handlers who say they regularly face housing discrimination, despite Haywood needing Starry for daily tasks like deep pressure therapy, heart-rate monitoring and crowd control in public spaces.
“Starry has given me my life back. Without her I don’t feel safe. Her help has positively impacted every part of my life and made it worth living again,” Haywood explains.
The 24-year-old hides Starry from potential landlords. “I’ve got excuses like ‘I stayed at a friend’s house or we saw a cat on the way’ to explain any fur during viewings. We shouldn’t need all these scripts when the law is on our side. We say we don’t have pets – legally we don’t – but we don’t want them knowing we have a dog.”
It’s not just private rentals where handlers face discrimination. “It’s hard to get temporary accommodation and social housing to accept my dog; they keep referring to him as a pet,” says Lauren Campbell-Thompson, a 30-year-old researcher and student from London who has autism and complex PTSD. “I’ve been in hotels for the last week and a half.”
Campbell-Thompson, whose assistance dog is Harley, an Australian shepherd, has been in five different hotels in 10 days. But many places will not take her due to Harley, who alerts Campbell-Thompson when she is about to faint, keeps her safe when walking by traffic and can also remove clothes like socks and trousers.
“The council acknowledged Harley wasn’t a pet in writing,” she says, “but they’ve gone back on it. They told me it’s going to be hard to find accommodation, even without him.”
Shelter reports the UK has a social housing deficit, with over one million households on waiting lists. Combined with a lack of knowledge on assistance dog law, disabled people like Campbell-Thompson are seeing themselves pushed further out of housing.
“I’ve shown them a letter from my GP and my psychologist, videos of him working,” she says. I’ve contacted the Equality and Human Rights Commission who said they can’t get involved. I’ve checked Lewisham Council’s policy – it says nothing about assistance dogs.”
Campbell-Thompson is carer to her disabled twin and cannot live in many places due to her own disabilities. Each time she checks into a hotel, she has to bring her belongings and Harley with her. Moving so often is having an impact on her wellbeing. She says, “I’ve had breakdowns. I don’t sleep. The hotels don’t have air conditioning, so Harley was overheating. My mental health has already taken a hit and it’s only been a week and a half. They’ve told me it could be like this for years.”
The council told her they can’t house her and Harley, and are instead paying for her to stay in a pet-friendly hotel. Some hotel staff even threatened to remove her with a written note.
She says: “They’re paying an extra £20 a night to allow my ‘pet’ when they could just use the law. So they’re wasting council funds.”
Some hope the Renters (Reform) Bill’s new rights for pet owners will help, but assistance dog handlers aren’t convinced. “We get denied for being on benefits, for having an assistance dog,” says Haywood. “Those are already illegal and still happen.”
Siân Murphy, who runs PAD, an assistance dog advocacy service, agrees. “Landlords will always find a way around it,” she says. “They don’t have to give a reason, so you’ll never know if they’re discriminating against you because of your dog.”
Murphy, who is disabled herself, advocates for assistance dog handlers dealing with discrimination. But she says it can be hard to prove. “If they were more explicit my job would be a lot easier,” she says. “If it’s not said out loud or in writing there’s no legal leg to stand on. I wish I could say I’ve had more success stories.” When asked what lies ahead, Murphy says, “Unless there’s a massive change in housing, it’s not going to change a lot.”
Vicky Worthington, development manager at Assistance Dogs UK – the country’s largest coalition of assistance dog charities – also agrees. She says, “Assistance dogs should not be treated as though they are pet dogs. This includes the provision of housing, so the new Renters (Reform) Bill should not technically have an impact on disabled people who rely on highly trained assistance dogs.”
Worthington suggests that without change in the law, discrimination will continue. “We believe that the existing legislation surrounding assistance dogs lacks clarity, and that this sometimes leads to uncertainty among service providers regarding their legal obligations,” she says.
“Regrettably, the burden of proof in cases of discrimination rests with the individual who has experienced it, and many do not have the financial means to pursue legal action so there are often no repercussions for these discriminatory practices.”
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