Danielle and her husband feel they’re being unfairly filtered out of applications because they receive some benefits.
When Alys Grigg was searching for a rental home in Luton five years ago, the process was relatively smooth.
Despite being on maternity leave at the time, her remuneration package from work was generous, and the estate agent she dealt with was satisfied Grigg could pay the rent. In September 2017, she settled into her new home with a baby on the way.
In March 2022, Grigg was again on maternity leave, having given birth to her third child in January. At a play centre with her children one morning, she got a call out of the blue – the landlord was selling up, and she’d been served a Section 21 notice: a “no-fault eviction”.
This time around, Grigg’s search for a new place to live has been a far cry from her experience five years prior. As a single mother, her income is topped up with some state benefits, and in spite of cutting her maternity leave short for proof she’s in work, every application has met a dead end.
“You get so many questions now – about the ages of your children, whether you have a partner, all kinds of stuff that you think: ‘How is that relevant?’,” she says.
“One [estate agent] actually told me I wasn’t an ideal tenant because I’m a single mother.”
Grigg’s story is just one dispatch from the crisis now brewing in the private rented sector.
In recent months, soaring demand and limited supply of homes has pushed up rental costs at the fastest rate on record, with more households facing section 21 notices than before the pandemic. Many landlords are cashing in on record house prices, or turfing out current tenants to re-rent at higher prices.
As Grigg has discovered, this heated market has led to Hunger Games-esque competition between renters, forced to battle it out and emerge the “perfect tenant” – invariably a wealthy professional who meets the landlord’s opaque desirability criteria.
Renters who don’t fit this bill now face being squeezed out of private tenancy, or forced to accept substandard housing. With waiting times for social homes spanning years in many parts of the country, there’s little else to fall back on. In the absence of intervention, it could lead to homelessness for thousands with nowhere else to turn.
For almost nine years, Danielle Lippett, in Warrington, has been what she would describe as the perfect tenant. She and her husband have never missed a rent payment, never caused any issues, and have kept the house in perfect condition.
Lippett and her husband were both in work when they moved into the property with their two sons. But in the intervening years a suspected heart attack forced her husband to cut down his hours, while Lippett gave up work to provide full-time care for their son, Oliver, who is autistic.
After being served a Section 21 notice last month, Lippett has discovered just how little a perfect record as a tenant serves you if you’re a family in receipt of state benefits.
“Due to our personal circumstances, we’re in receipt of universal credit as well as carer’s allowance and disability living allowance, which is for Oliver,” she explains.
“There’s been at least three or four times where we’ve applied for a property and been asked all kinds of questions about our family, pets, whether we smoke. Then we explain our financial situation, we’re told it will get passed along to the landlord then we never hear back.”
Two court rulings in England have established that a blanket ban on renting to people in receipt of benefits (known as “no DSS”) is unlawful. Yet as a recent BBC investigation and Lippett testify, the practice appears to be alive and well in the rental sector.
“Once I tried to apply for a property online and it wouldn’t let me go any further once I’d ticked a box saying I receive benefits,” Lippett says.
“Another property just had a note underneath telling people not to apply unless they have a combined income of more than £36,000,” she adds.
Lippett has struggled to even secure viewings of homes, with applicants like herself screened out of the process early on. Where she has looked around properties, her application has failed to go any further.
“For one property we viewed we were up against another family, and it was them who got chosen. When I asked for feedback I was told they [the other family] were ‘stronger applicants’ because of their income,” she says.
Timothy Douglas, head of policy and campaigns for estate agent association Propertymark said selection criteria is tightening due to a lack of landlord confidence following changes to renting policy, such as the upcoming Section 21 ban and tweaks to deposits.
“Consistent changes to what a landlord could count as a safety net in times of necessity means landlords are being forced to choose tenants more carefully, trying to limit any potential risks to their finances and property in the absence of feeling protected by the law,” he says.
Lippett’s choices are also limited by the rising costs of renting a three-bedroom home in Warrington. While she and her husband previously paid £850 in rent, prices are now ranging between £1,000 and £1,500.
“There’s one property going which isn’t nearly as appealing as where we live now and it’s being advertised for £1,600 – it’s just ludicrous,” she says.
Emboldened by high demand for properties, some landlords are tacking on extra costs too, Lippett says.
“We have a dog – a chihuahua – who has been in our family for almost a decade. We applied for one property where the landlord was asking for “pet rent” of £25 extra a month,” she says.
“Many properties don’t even accept pets in the first place – one estate agent we spoke to said she’d had a number of people offering to give up their pets just to secure a property.”
In some cases, Lippett has come up against prospective tenants paying six to 12 months’ rent up front to secure a property – a cost she and her husband are unable to shoulder.
It’s a screening tactic that’s become increasingly common over the last few months, says Dan Wilson-Craw of Generation Rent, who believes it’s an insidious way to filter out tenants on lower incomes.
“Asking people to pay six months’ rent up front is simply a way of excluding low-earners from the rental market and should be banned in the Renters Reform Bill,” he says.
The Renter’s Reform Bill aims to put an end to Section 21 notices, as well as bolstering tenants’ rights to decent homes with a new Ombudsman and a register for landlords to track their performance.
Until the bill is passed, however, renters are facing an increasingly difficult market. Both Lippett and Grigg believe the situation has led to a decline in standards, with estate agents presenting sub-standard, sometimes unsafe properties to prospective tenants.
“We went to see one place which was awful, really run-down with all the floors coming up and the walls and carpets all worn. It was so bad, and it was not cheap,” Lippett says.
“But at the end of the day we checked the listing again and it had gone – people are just desperate,” she adds.
Since she was served her Section 21 notice, Grigg has viewed “at least” 13 properties and applied for many more without hearing back.
With three children to care for, she’s fearful she won’t secure a place to live in time, and has approached the council for assistance – a position “I never ever thought I’d be in”, Grigg says.
“When I called [the council] the woman basically laughed down the phone. She told me some people have been on the social housing waiting list for 14 years and that I’d have to just find somewhere to rent,” Grigg explains.
“She couldn’t tell me where we’d end up if we became homeless – it could be temporary housing, a hostel or a B&B.”
Lippett was met with a similar situation when she contacted her council. With her son, Oliver, requiring round-the-clock care, the thought of ending up in temporary accommodation is “far from ideal”, she says.
Successive rejections have left Lippett and Grigg demoralised and extremely stressed about their future, struggling in the face of extreme selection criteria which has repeatedly barred them from accessing a safe place to live.
“I’m starting to doubt myself. I’m starting to feel like I have to explain every time why we’re on benefits – it makes me feel embarrassed,” Lippett says.
“We are hardworking people whose circumstances have left us in a difficult position.
“But even if we were people on benefits for whatever other reason, that shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t have to constantly prove yourself for people to just have a bit of empathy.”
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.