Campaigners stormed Hackney letting agents on Saturday to protest the “demonisation and discrimination” of housing benefit claimants by landlords in the borough.
Over 100 campaigners, joined by Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier, attended a rally outside Hackney Town Hall on Saturday morning to demand an end to the alleged “blanket ban” imposed by Hackney letting agents on benefit claimants.
The crowd of protesters marched through the town centre, waving placards and chanting slogans, with the Madness song ‘Our House’ blaring out from speakers. Police were called to the scene after campaigners occupied the offices of four letting agencies on Mare Street, but no arrests were made.
The protest marked the launch of the ‘Yes DSS’ campaign by Hackney Digs, a group which advocates the rights of private renters in the borough.
Heather Kennedy, who leads the campaign, said a survey of Hackney letting agents revealed that many impose a “blanket ban” on tenants who claim housing benefit – often referred to as DSS.
“We contacted 50 agents, and 21 of these had a blanket company policy of not accepting tenants who claimed DSS. The rest either declined to comment or said it was very rare to find landlords comfortable with renting to tenants on housing benefit,” she said.
“We’re aiming to shame letting agents and bring the issue out into the public. We want to hold them to account and show the human cost of their snobbery.”
Rocketing rent prices in recent years have led to a dramatic increase in the number of Hackney residents claiming housing benefit. In total, the borough has more than 40,000 claimants – the most in London.
Hackney Digs member John Jeffery said: “The stigmatisation of people on benefits is systemic within the housing market. With the government selling off what’s left of social housing, many of those who are in receipt of housing benefit are being pushed into the private sector, where they have no rights.
“It’s a big big problem, especially here in Hackney, which has the highest number of housing benefit claimants in the country.”
Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, endorsed the campaign, calling on the government to “sit up and listen” to the protesters.
Speaking exclusively to the Hackney Post, Ms Hillier said: “Hackney is at the epicentre of a national housing crisis. What is happening in Hackney today will happen in other parts of the country tomorrow. The government have simply got to sit up and listen to what people in Hackney are saying.
“Every time the chancellor unveils something as good news for housing, it is bad news for Hackney, and it’s particularly bad news for tenants. All the odds are stacked in favour of the landlords. A landlord simply does not need to know when someone is on benefits, it shouldn’t be an issue.”
Hillier said Labour are taking steps to tackle the problem by enforcing rules to ensure letting agents in Hackney advertise fees. But she added that “letting agents are only part of the problem”.
“Really we need to tackle affordability and rent prices,” she said. “House prices mean we’re losing young families and young people who just can’t afford to live in Hackney any more. They are being replaced by overseas investors and foreign developers who contribute nothing to the borough and just use housing as cash cows.”
Ms Kennedy, from Digs Hackney, called on Ms Hillier and the Labour Party to show more “political bravery” in tackling the housing crisis.
“Rent and housing prices have risen faster in Hackney than anywhere else in the country, and we’d like to see the council and MPs do more to protect this area from gentrification.”
Meanwhile, the manager of Stirling Ackroyd, one of the estate agents targeted by campaigners during Saturday’s protest, said the protest was “misplaced” and had left office workers “terrified.”
Athos Kleanthous told the Hackney Post: “I don’t know why they are targeting estate agents. It’s the Houses of Parliament they should be attacking. David Cameron is the one who started this all by cutting housing benefit, it’s this which makes landlords reluctant to take on people reliant on benefits.
“Letting agents can’t do anything about it. We would take DSS tenants every day of the week but when we put them through to the landlords, they are just not interested.
“I have nothing else to say to the protesters – they can’t ever [set] foot in my office again. The poor girl behind the desk was left massively distressed and in tears. From now on we’re going to lock the door at weekends because she’s so terrified they’re going to come again.”