afro carribean single mother

Is “no DSS” still a sign of the times?

By Sue Coulson

Overt “DSS” discrimination may be on the decline but landlord reluctance to let properties to households on benefits is still with us. We still have significant barriers to overcome before the private rented sector opens up enough to make a real difference to homeless families.

Several councils in London are reviewing their homelessness strategies. Although action plans differ, there is a shared recognition that the private rented sector is part of the solution to the homelessness crisis. Harrow council recently noted that DSS discrimination “remains a concern”.

Councils rely on landlords willing to let their properties to tenants claiming benefits. Capital Letters staff talk to hundreds of landlords and agents in London every month, and we meet plenty of misconceptions. Occasionally there is outright prejudice.

It’s over a year since a York court heard a landmark case about landlord discrimination against people claiming benefits. This finally set a legal precedent following a lengthy campaign by Shelter and others to stamp out “no DSS” discrimination.

Twelve months after York, Oxford city council voted to stop “no DSS” practices such as preventing tenants on benefits viewing affordable properties.

The cross-party motion – reported as a first for a council in England – stated that “DSS discrimination is one obstacle among many for those on benefits accessing housing”.

In fact, the York claim was upheld under the Equality Act because the claimant was a disabled mother. A blanket no ‘DSS’ policy falls unequally on women and disabled people, who are both more likely to claim benefits.

However, the legal precedent was set. Landlords and agents must now consider prospective tenants individually, not as a category. Respectable agents have removed DSS references from their websites, but less visible discrimination persists.

Councils need good access to the private rented sector to find suitable homes for families to put down roots and settle in their communities. And when councils discharge their legal duty to homeless people, they can also reduce their costs.

These costs are predicted to spiral as a result of lifting the eviction ban and ending the furlough scheme. No wonder many councils are signalling their desire to work with a more professionalised landlord sector that can guarantee housing quality and decent treatment of tenants.

Capital Letters was set up by councils in London to push the business case for landlords letting to tenants on benefits and to drive up standards. Oxford city council’s action has reminded us that we also have a role in challenging prejudice against people who simply need a good quality affordable home.

Sue Coulson is the Chief Executive Officer of Capital Letters.

More news and blogs

Helping private renters avoid “housing stress” in London

Family playing at home

Helping private renters avoid “housing stress” in London

13th July 2021

The stress of unaffordable housing for private renters in London is made very clear from the new English Housing Survey. How can we reduce that stress and find secure and settled homes for families?

Family playing at home

Private renters in London spend 42% of their household income on rent. The England average is 32%.

Spending over 30% of your income on rent is considered an important affordability threshold, according to the English Housing Survey report published by the government. The lower your income, the harder that percentage hits. Households with low incomes and proportionately high rents are at risk of “housing stress”.

The government statisticians use a 30/40 rule to show the impact of high rents on low-income households, including benefits. They look at the 40% of households in the lowest income brackets paying more than 30% of their income on rent. 

Now for the first time, the survey breaks this unaffordability measure down by region. Nationally a little over two-thirds (69%) of low earners pay more than 30% on rent. In London, it is pretty much every household – an alarming 93%.

Other results from the survey further highlight the challenges for renters on low incomes and claiming benefits. Nearly one in ten (9%) said they had been turned down for a property because they claim benefits.

Private renters who received housing benefits were more likely to have had arrears. They are also more like to be in non-decent or overcrowded homes.

The overall picture from the English Housing Survey is that the private rental sector is a vitally important tenure for families on low incomes and reducing homelessness. But we need to do more to avoid “housing stress” for private renters on low incomes in London, particularly those claiming benefits.

The market won’t do this on its own. That’s why Capital Letters was set up to work with councils in and responsible landlords in London to find good-quality accommodation for families at risk of homelessness, with thorough assessments to ensure the rent is affordable before they move in. 

And once they do move into their new home, we provide essential support for both families and landlords to reduce the risks of “housing stress” by helping with benefit claims and other problems that can derail a tenancy, avoiding the distress of repeat homelessness.

Find out how we work with landlords and councils in London to find secure and settled home for families here.

More news and blogs

Meet the new “accidental” landlords

Apartment blocks

Meet the new “accidental” landlords

27th May 2021

There is a new type of accidental landlord – the ones who find themselves unexpectedly renting to tenants on benefits. Will the experience change their views of claimants?

Apartment blocks

This week, I went to the (virtual) National Landlord Investment Show on a mission to persuade landlords to rent to families on benefits following a great piece of research by Ligia Teixeira, PhD and the team at Centre for Homelessness Impact. Based on this, it’s clear they may need a lot of persuading!

 “While there is a supply of working tenants who will pay market rates, why on earth would you take tenants on benefits?” asks Richard Blanco, a landlord and London rep for the National Residential Landlord Association (NRLA).

He believes persuasion backed by cash incentives are essential. (Incidentally, Capital Letters can offer both).

Nonetheless, more landlords are now renting to tenants on benefits for the first time. Covid doubled the number of claimants in a year to 6 million and in London alone the number has more than doubled to over 1 million. Some are existing private renters, thus creating new accidental landlords of claimants.

We do not see the eviction ban having an immediate impact. Some landlords facing arrears will choose the devil-you-know option – a previously reliable tenant, now on a repayment plan.

I hope a few myths are dispelled in the minds of landlords who have a positive experience of tenants on benefits.

The benefits system itself may be the bigger deterrent. Bill Irvine of Universal Credit Advice says there’s a lot of uncertainty and landlords need to spend some time understanding the system. But those that do can let their properties confidently to tenants on benefits.

Accidental landlords who have found themselves part of the benefits system may find the risks are lower than they thought.

Could Covid have opened up the private rental market a little so more families at risk of homelessness can find a settled home?

Ligia Teixeira, PhDCentre for Homelessness ImpactBill IrvineRichard BlancoNational Residential Landlords Association – NRLANational Landlord Investment Show

More news and blogs

Can we persuade more landlords to accept families on benefits?

To let sign

Can we persuade more landlords to accept families on benefits?

13th April 2021

Sadly it takes more than a nudge to persuade some private landlords to offer homes to families on benefits. To let sign

New research shows that tenants have little chance of finding a rental property on their own. When a council officer makes the approach, chances improve – but only if rent is guaranteed or upfront incentives paid.

These are the findings of an invaluable piece of attitudinal research carried out for @centre-for-homelessness-impact by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – known as the ‘nudge unit’ for their work on influencing behaviour change.

Researchers tested various offers of support for landlords asked to accept tenants on universal credit (UC) using a large sample of National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) members.

“The scenarios we presented in our trials were designed either to be affordable at the LHA rate or to compensate landlords for renting at a below-market rent,” their report says. “This demonstrates that a tenant’s ability to afford rent is not the only barrier to overcome in encouraging landlords to rent to people who receive UC.”

Some local authorities provide budgeting advice and pre-tenancy training, while all landlords can apply for direct rent payments. But researchers found that highlighting these measures had no impact on the likelihood of landlords accepting tenants on UC.

At Capital Letters, we know from dealing with hundreds of landlords on behalf of councils across London that our experience matches the outcomes of this research: incentive payments are definitely needed, and ideally rent in advance. For many landlords, only cash upfront offsets the perceived risk of arrears. But often that isn’t enough.

The new research highlights a misunderstanding about homelessness at best, or at worst discrimination. We have testimonials from landlords and agents who have had a positive experience and valued our ability to show them the ropes of the benefits system in addition to our unique tenancy sustainment service for both tenants and landlords. But we also encounter plenty of ‘no DSS’ responses.

The BIT and NRLA research does offer some hope. Landlords who have already let to tenants on UC may be more likely to go ahead with a tenancy, suggesting experience could trump preconceptions. And telling landlords that claimants lost their job through Covid also got a better response than when no reason is given. So communication counts.

We need to explain the reasons for homelessness to create a more nuanced view of people claiming benefit. Some myth-busting at the first contact with landlords might help, along with the reassurance that the tenancy will be supported – as we do at Capital Letters – if things go wrong. We know private landlords are persuadable.

But this research shows that without people to act on their behalf, the private rental market is closed for many people at risk of homelessness. That is not right, and thanks to Ligia Teixeira and her team at CHI we know a lot more about how we can persuade more landlords to offer a secure and settled home for families.

More news and blogs

Covid-19 & the new “normal”​


Covid-19 & the new "normal"

15th June 2020

The coronavirus crisis has had, and continues to have, a devastating impact around the world. Despite the challenges, many companies have adapted what they do to meet these. As a new start-up company without entrenched working arrangements it has been a real learning opportunity, causing us to question some of our assumptions about the most effective way to provide our services and enabling us to live up to our commitment to be agile. We are not alone in this; many organisations are thinking about what working in the “new normal” looks like and how we can #GoBackBetter.

To quote a well-worn phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, and that is certainly the impact that COVID-19 is having on most businesses as they reframe what they do and how they do it.

At Capital Letters, we work to prevent and relieve homelessness across London by procuring accommodation from private landlords and managing agents on behalf of our 17 member boroughs enabling them to meet their responsibilities and find homes for homeless households.

As a new not-for-profit company, we are still finding our feet and the current pandemic has required us to change the way we work very early in our lifecycle; however, it’s also taught us a few things.



Collaboration is the key to the future

Capital Letters is built on collaborative working. Our mission is working in partnership to solve the homelessness crisis across London – creatively, innovatively, collaboratively and relentlessly. This is what we do every day but during this pandemic collaboration has become even more important. There needs to be a consistent, joined up and holistic approach to solving homelessness generally otherwise nothing will change. In response we have extended our collaborative partnership working beyond our usual partners and activities and continue to explore new opportunities for collaboration.

We’ve extended our service, with the support of MHCLG, working as part of the pan-London Rough Sleeping Task Force by specifically procuring safe, self-contained accommodation for our member boroughs enabling them to move rough sleepers from hotels into homes. It’s a small but vital part in achieving the overarching ambition of keeping #EveryoneInForGood. This is a phenomenal achievement and has taken a lot of work to get all the organisations involved working together in a concerted and consistent way, without tripping over each other or competing for scarce resources.

The key takeaway from this is that such collaboration and partnership working can’t and shouldn’t be a one-off in response to a particular issue or crisis. We can’t go backwards; this has to be part of BAU in the “new normal” as only in this way can we harness the skills and experience of our respective organisations to maximise opportunities to achieve an impact and a greater good that is beyond what individual organisations can achieve on their own. And the added value is better use and targeting of resources, joined up working and ultimately efficiency savings.


Trust is reliant on social interaction – usually!

In the normal world, pre-CV-19, our procurement team (some 60% or our workforce) work remotely (away from the office) and are constantly in contact with landlords and managing agents arranging meetings with them or viewing and inspecting properties. This has been traditionally a key element of the way in which we provide our services: building relationships and rapport based on social interaction and trust so the team can procure enough properties to meet the demands of our member boroughs.

Even as a new organisation it’s easy to fall back on the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra. And in terms of procurement of homes in London this is certainly true; there is a way that it is “usually” done.

However, in response to CV-19 we have had to rethink how we continue to meet this fundamental service requirement. Our member boroughs still need good quality properties for homeless households over and above those we’re procuring to support the rough sleeping initiative; people becoming homelessness hasn’t stopped because of the pandemic. Therefore, our team has had to adapt, finding properties using new and different tactics, which are interestingly proving to be more effective and efficient.

Working remotely and from home does require higher levels of trust from organisational leaders – you can’t “see” what your team are doing, you have to trust that the results and outcomes will be achieved. And our team have to trust what our landlords tell them – the team now “inspect” properties using photos and videos, and whilst it hasn’t all been plain sailing, it is working well and is proving to be a more cost effective and efficient use of our time and resources. Pre-CV-19, the team spent a good proportion of their days travelling around London, time which they can now spend finding more properties from the comfort of their homes which is far more efficient and cost effective. Our productivity is on the up despite relying on these digital resources and this increase in trust has helped us build key relationships both

internally and externally. We are consciously coming back better as a result of this experience. We will be adapting what we have learnt as a result of this experiment to change permanently how we work in the future, with some tweaks to introduce some inspections and quality auditing of our properties to ensure standards are maintained.


The benefits of agile working

From the day we started operating, we have consciously set out to have an agile, inclusive working environment. However, we’re seeing agile working in a whole new light. None of our staff have been furloughed and we are actively using all the tools available to us to continue to grow and develop. We, like many other companies, use technologies such as Teams and Zoom for all of our meetings – including Board meetings – and for regular social events to keep connected with each other. We have developed our virtual induction programme so that we are still able to recruit which is our life-blood and are actively using Yammer as our team communications tool. However, we’re still only learning about the capabilities of these tools – particularly Teams and the way it links to SharePoint – and therefore the way we construct our internal operating model. Throughout lockdown and beyond, we will continue to explore, proactively develop and improve how we use these tools for the benefit of our business, our team, members and other stakeholders.


And what of the future?

So, bringing this together, whilst the lockdown has been very difficult in some ways, the silver lining has been the opportunity to rethink, recalibrate and improve.

It has also caused us to consider whether we need an office in the future, and if we do, what type of space we really need. We still need to get over the barrier of public transport, as many of our team are reliant on this to travel to work which will remain a challenge. However, the other reflection is that the social connection and interaction between our colleagues is also a vital part of our make-up; we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and lose the intrinsic elements of what makes us a great company. And so some of the money we’ll be saving on our office costs could be reinvested in staff engagement activities, whilst continuing to drive and achieve greater value for money. These are all things we are thinking more about as part of our lockdown-easing post-CV-19 future planning.

By Sue Coulson


More news and blogs

Capital Letters London Taxi Campaign

Capital Letters Taxi Advert

Capital Letters London Taxi Campaign

January 12, 2020

Capital Letters is advertising on London taxis.

The taxi campaign, running for a month will include Capital Letters advertising on the outside of the taxis as well as marketing inside taxis across London.

The Taxi campaign will appear over 55 different taxis during January (w/c 27 January) and February. The campaign highlights the benefits for landlords of working with Capital Letters instead of going it alone. 

Capital Letters Taxi Advert

Capital Letters Taxi Campaign – external wrap creative

In addition to the taxi ads, look out for print adverts in the London Evening Standard in January and first week of February. 

More news and blogs