Playing the private let lottery
“Do you have a job?” “Do you have kids?” “Do you have pets?”
These three questions have plagued my life for the last month. You’d be forgiven for thinking I was dating or going through a really intensive job interview. Instead, it’s the three key questions I was asked by letting agents from across the Central Belt. In that instance, someone had the power to decide if I’d have a roof over my head or not.
As the pandemic rumbles on, each and every single one of us is trying to keep our heads above water. There’s a lot to juggle for everyone, whether it’s our own health or our family’s, the ever changing rules on where we can go and what we can do or making the switch to digital learning and working. Some of us are lucky enough to be in safe and secure employment. There are many others who aren’t and who work in industries facing financial crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has managed to shut down industries across the world. Whether it’s hospitality, retail or sport, COVID-19 has made its financial impact known. Yet one of the areas almost unfazed by the pandemic has been the housing market. If anything, the housing market has taken off. I only know this because through a series of different circumstances I came to be house hunting during the pandemic.
Estate agents and solicitors across the country have been speaking to the media in recent days about the boost in property prices and the number of enquiries they face about each property they have been marketing. With the growth of home working, a recent report by the BBC highlighted comments by spokespeople at McEwen Fraser Legal about a growing interest in Scottish properties from around the world.
All this while there’s a shortage of homes. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its state of the nation report, has called for the Scottish Government to build 53,000 new homes by 2026 of which 70 per cent should be for social rent. They have also asked the Scottish Government to step in with additional legislative protection and help with housing costs if existing support for renters proves insufficient to keep people in their homes. This is a vital protection for those precariously renting and unable to afford to buy a house.
As a result of being unable to afford to buy, I’m one of Scotland’s approximately 370,000 private renters. It’s as a result of this that I’ve visited properties across the Central Belt in Scotland and been interrogated about my life.
At each property I visited I was told it was in high demand that the landlord was keen to rent to ‘professionals’ and that they were looking to financially assess suitability to the property. The first question was always whether I had a job. It seemed vital that I worked. I asked an estate agent one day why this was and they told me: they can’t say ‘No DSS’ anymore.
This discriminatory statement for years has been a mainstay in property advertisements. A judgement from the very beginning that if you’re struggling to keep your head above water and face unemployment, then you’re not the right candidate for the property in question. The trouble is, if every lifeline is pulled in and doors are closed to you, just how do you stay afloat?
Shelter ran a campaign calling for the end to ‘No DSS’ discrimination and recently won a landmark court case. It recognises the illegality of discrimination in this form. Yet, it seems overnight landlords have changed the question and continued in the very same spirit.
Having somewhere to call home is such a fundamental part of our own individual human stories, but all it takes is a series of questions and you’re on the road again, looking once more.
As the housing market takes off in spite of a pandemic, thousands more have no option but to resort to private landlords. The power dynamic is very much uneven. My partner and I left some viewings, walking past queues of people essentially entering a judgement as to whether they would be part of the rental lottery. Each of us harbouring a little hope that we’d be the lucky one to be picked and that the others would be left to continue looking. This is not how access to a home should work in Scotland in 2020.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m considered a safe bet. I’m not struggling to pay my bills or hold on to a job. It could all change tomorrow though. As the pandemic continues, job losses in certain industries looks almost inevitable and some entire sectors are looking at financial ruin. It isn’t you today, but it could be tomorrow and there’s nothing to stop you facing the same discrimination.
If the deciding question of whether you get a home or not is going to be whether you have a job, whether you have a pet or children, we could all be an email or a meeting away from homelessness.