By Tom de Castella BBC News Magazine
“To let” advertisements that specify a particular race or religion are visible in newsagents windows in many areas of London. But are they breaking the law?
Today overt racial discrimination is both illegal and socially unacceptable.
But it is now possible to find advertisements seeking tenants for rented accommodation which specify race, or other characteristics, in a way which some experts believe breaks the law.
Newsagents in different areas of London carry adverts saying:
- “Double bedroom available… Asian only”
- “Double room to let Gujarati (Indian) only”
- Close to the station and bus stops (Filipino only)
- “Professional single lady or Sri Lanka professional couple”
- “House for rent… only Asian families”
And even on the Gumtree website you can find the occasional advert for flats in London and Birmingham specifying race.
The newsagents or online adverts are not common but they are easy to find in London in particular.
What the law says
The Equality Act 2010 covers England, Wales and Scotland. It aims to protect people from discrimination, harassment or victimisation on the basis of age, disability, race, sex and other “protected grounds”.
Equality law applies to any person or organisation providing goods, facilities or services to the public.
The service provider must not treat someone worse just because of one or more protected characteristics (this is called direct discrimination).
The act covers services that are free or paid for. The size of the organisation is irrelevant.
Most people understand that racial discrimination in jobs or education is both unacceptable and illegal. It’s a position reinforced by the 2010 Equality Act, covering England, Wales and Scotland, which defines race in terms of both ethnicity and nationality. The same applies to religion – “Christian only” or “Muslim only” are both unacceptable.
It is illegal to seek a Polish architect, for example. But an employer would be able to call for an architect who speaks Polish or is familiar with Polish culture.
In the same way, landlords who specify a certain race are breaking the law, legal experts say. In 2009 the BBC found that letting agents in Lincolnshire were excluding migrant workers at the request of landlords. It was covert discrimination and breached the Race Relations Act 1976.
But in London at least you can find adverts specifying race openly displayed. Examples were not immediately apparent in Glasgow, Cardiff, Leicester or Bradford.
They only represent a small proportion of flat ads but it’s hard to imagine even a single similar advert saying “whites only” not drawing complaints.
But when contacted by the BBC, advertisers were taken aback to hear they might be breaking the law. A woman who placed a “Filipino only” advert in a newsagent in Golders Green, north London, explains: “I’m sorry about that. All the people here are Filipino so we need Filipinos.”
An advertiser in Tooting, south London, seeking a “Muslim family” is disappointed that the law may not allow for religious preference. “We are Muslim and it’s a flatshare. What can I say? Everyone has his own preferences. OK?”
Diet is a commonly cited reason. The author of a “Gujarati (Indian) only” ad says: “I’m a vegetarian and I don’t like meat in the kitchen.”
An advertiser in Perry Barr, Birmingham, who put an ad on Gumtree for a “student room (Asian females only)” defends the wording: “We have done that because we are Asians and live in.”
A number of those contacted refused to discuss the wording of their adverts.
The Equality Act says: “A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.” But how this might apply to flat adverts is yet to be tested in court and there is disagreement over the application.
There are three different groups who typically place flat adverts – landlords or agents letting a property, live-in landlords letting part of their property and tenants looking for housemates.
Dr Nuno Ferreira, an expert in discrimination law at the University of Manchester, believes that all these groups are covered.
“It doesn’t make any difference if the landlord lives in the premises or not. This distinction will have a bearing on discrimination on other grounds, but not in relation to race or ethnicity.” The same applies to tenants looking for a housemate, he believes.
Chris Norris, head of policy at the National Landlords Association, is less sure. “It is not clear whether tenants who do the same are breaking the law or not, although such behaviour is discriminatory against other potential housemates,” he says. “Tenants looking for new housemates should focus on describing the house’s current occupants so that potential applicants can judge for themselves whether they would be a suitable fit or not.”
The Equality Act appears to support Ferreira’s view that everyone is covered. Explanatory notes published with the act say that section 33 “…makes it unlawful for a person who has the authority to dispose of premises (for example, by selling, letting or subletting a property) to discriminate against or victimise someone else in a number of ways including by offering the premises to them on less favourable terms; by not letting or selling the premises to them or by treating them less favourably.”
But housing law expert Daniel Fitzpatrick, associate solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen, argues it’s “ambiguous”. In general, housing legislation does not include live-in landlords and tenants, so it depends whether the Equality Act goes further, he says.
The idea that the law should dictate how landlords advertise a property is a step too far for some people. “We’ve become too politically correct about these things,” says Anil Bhanot, managing trustee of the Hindu Council UK. “If people have choices let them.”
To demand “Indian only” is a mistake, he says, but there is nothing negative about expressing a preference.
“It could be people are looking for someone with whom they have more common interests. It’s not that they can’t live with an English person.”
There’s a danger these adverts could create anger and division, argues David Goodhart, director of think tank Demos.
“It would cause amazing outrage if it’s happening on any scale and not moved against very sharply. People would think there’s one law for the ethnic majority and one law for various ethnic minorities.”
A Gumtree spokesman says the site does not allow discriminatory adverts: “We have strict rules in place to ensure that ads meet the guidelines set out by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. The rules on race equality, gender equality and the Race Relations act are clearly advertised across the site, and specifically on the ‘Flatshare posting rules’ page. Any adverts found to be breaking these rules are removed.”
So is prosecution likely in the case of flat adverts specifying race?
An Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spokeswoman says it has written to lettings agents in the past to explain that “usually they cannot specify that a prospective tenant is British, Asian or otherwise.”
The commission says that discrimination in flat let adverts may go far wider than race alone. While adverts specifying ethnicity are not common, those that say “female only” or “male only” are widespread.
These also may now be against the law.
“Women-only ads may be against the law unless it can be objectively justified,” the EHRC says. “For example, it is usually justifiable for a domestic violence shelter to offer beds to only women or only men for their personal safety.”
The same principle applies to age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion, and sexual orientation.
So “gay flatmate wanted” may be equally illegal.
Not everything is off limits though. “Those characteristics do not include vegetarianism,” the spokeswoman explains.
There’s no getting away from the fact that people want to live with likeminded people. But can that be allowed to mean people of the same ethnicity or religion? And even if there was a crackdown on discriminatory ads, would people not just subtly choose the ethnic group they wanted anyway, perhaps using prompts and coded terms?
There’s a need for flexibility in how discrimination law is applied as some groups are more vulnerable than others, says Penny Anderson, author of the Renter Girl blog. “A landlord saying no to a Muslim woman is wrong. But I think a group of Muslim women turning down a white man is OK.”
Initially, Bhanot is in favour of everyone being able to state a preference over the nationality or race of their chosen tenant. So should this apply to people saying “white only”? “Yes, it’s got to be allowed.”
On reflection though, he believes this might cause minorities to complain of discrimination. “This is a tricky thing. So maybe no-one should say it,” he wonders aloud.
Goodhart argues that stating any racial preference on a public notice is unacceptable. “There are certain anti-discrimination absolutes. Colour-blind liberalism has got to cut both ways. Otherwise it’s a gift to those who feel totally disaffected by how multiculturalism is being managed.”
But people can simply get around the law by placing an advert on a site catering for their own group, be it students, Indians or feminists. They can put a notice up in a foreign language, thus excluding anyone who can’t read Hebrew, Bengali or Polish, for example. They can also simply wait for the responses and filter applicants.
It’s true, says Goodhart. “Hypocrisy is better than overt, public racial preference.”
Below is a selection of your comments.
This is common in other parts of the country too. I lived in west Cornwall a couple of years ago and it was a common add, by main agents to advertise: No Children, sharers, pets or DHSS. They are all the same – prejudice.
C Thompson, Lewes
Not allowing postings catering to particular races, genders, religions, etc is asinine. While non-discrimination certainly has wide benefits in society, flat sharing is something that should be completely immune from these laws. People not comfortable with roommates of another religion, race, or gender have every right to target only those who they would like to live with for their own personal reasons. For a landlord to discriminate against someone because of their status is wrong, but for flat sharing, it is entirely ok and only logical to limit the search to people one would be comfortable living with.
Michael Pfeifer, Chicago
As a former flatseeker myself, I was actually grateful for those ads that made it quite clear that I needn’t waste my time on calling – e.g. “gay flatshare”, or “Polish only”. If flatsharers have specific preferences as to who they want to live with, so be it – fine by me! However, it’s different with landlords who are renting out a self-contained flat. There should be no discrimination whatsoever there – but then I also think professional landlords should be registered and regulated anyway.
Paulina Smid , London
When I first moved to Coventry I put a deposit on a granny flat, only to be told a week later by a sheepish letting agent that the landlord downstairs only wanted Indian tenants. The landlord was removing the house from the letting agent rather than let it to us. I accepted this and still accept it now – the truth is that people have to be comfortable with who they have in their house. If landlords don’t discriminate at the ‘first sift’ they certainly will at interview, if not consciously. We’ve come a long way from the days of ‘no dogs, no black, no Irish’. There’s nothing wrong with people seeking to share their living space with others with whom they share a cultural norm. To suggest otherwise is to chase discrimination law to an end so mad and illogical that it undermines itself.
May years ago adverts used to say ‘No Blacks, Irish or dogs’. These were deemed illegal and had to be removed, why doesn’t the same rule apply to these people?
Joe Quigley, Scunthorpe
I don’t think landlords should be allowed to express a preference, but for flat-shares it seems perfectly reasonable that cultural or religious reasons dictate that a person may not want their kitchen to contain non-Halal meat, or to add a man to a group of 3/4 women, for example. I would not be offended to be refused a flat-share for these reasons; there are plenty of other rooms available from others. If the anti-discrimination laws were interpreted in this way it would penalize the very minorities it was set up to help.
If these adverts specified “whites only” then I’m sure we would be reading an article along the lines of “racist landlords”.
The market should deal with this. If your room is only available to a subset of tenants (say, only Asian women) then your room will be vacant for longer, and you will earn less than if you were more inclusive. Be open minded and reap the financial benefits.
Ross Parker, Bristol
Whilst totally against any form of discrimination, I do feel that being allowed to decide who shares your home should be a matter of personal preference – on the same lines as specifying ‘non-smokers’ or ‘dog-free home’. A group of women – of whatever race or ethnicity – would probably prefer to maintain that group by only wanting another female flat mate, for example, so why should that be a problem? The same applies to language barriers, dietary preferences (especially on religious grounds – very easy to cause offence if you’re not familiar with dietary restrictions) and all sorts of things.
Anne Boyce, Halifax
Racism is a fact of life – be it in private or in the public domain as is evident with these letting adverts. Laws preventing such things can only go so far so people should learn to deal with it and discourage it at the same time. Besides, would you really want to flat share with someone who didn’t really want you there in the first place? Regardless of the reason?
Evan Skuthorpe, London
Is this any more descriminatory than stating ”no pets”, ”no benefits”, ”no children” which are pretty much standard statements in most letting agents adverts..?
OK so if I chose to advertise for a lodger to move into my spare room I am unable to ask for say a professional male or female? Or indeed if I would like a white British person that would not be allowed either? It is my home and surely I get to choose who I live with. If this way of advertising was “illegal” then it would just mean that we would end up wasting countless hours vetting the people that called up in response, because ultimately if I want a particular type of person living with me then surely all I will have to do is say no to everyone else until I get the type of person I want to live with. I don’t see that there is an issue here, especially with house share/lodger scenarios. I will live with whoever I want to live with, and that will never change.
Mark Ingram, Stoke
I don’t think that landlords should be able to discriminate when they advertise an empty property to let, but if there are existing tenants in the property then they should be allowed to say what type of person they want to share their living space with.
Carol, east Sussex
There seems a very simple way around this. The people making the “to let” adverts should talk about themselves rather than the potential tenants. “We are a house of quiet Hindi speaking Indian women who always only ever eat vegetarian meals, no meat”… most likely they will get only quiet Hindi-speaking Indian female vegetarian respondents. Who else would want to live with them? But if they get a response from, for example, a quiet gay white male obsessed with vegetarianism & Hindi culture and who wants to live in such a house, and the women are uncomfortable with this, then there is clearly some prejudice taking place.
Sarah , London
As a white British woman and so a member of the dominant ethnic group I think it is fine if minorities and women advertise specifically about who they want to live with. We can not deny that there is no racial and sexual discrimination in this society and who wants to risk bringing that into their own home? However, the woman who cited vegetarianism as a reason to advertise for a Gujarati flatmate clearly could have just asked for a vegetarian.
Emma , London
Our daughter, her husband, and their 18-month-old baby were refused a house they wished to let because “the old lady next door doesn’t like children”. Two years ago, when they were expecting the baby, they were refused a flat which advertised “no children”, although he was not yet born. I was surprised at the time, and still wonder whether that is legal in 2012. Both times it was an agency for a private landlord. Would anyone be evicted if they had a baby while living in such a flat or house? Not a race issue, I know, but certainly something that affects the current generation of renters.
Carol Gilham, York
Discrimination has become a dirty word: it’s been made into a crime. Yet it simply means to separate, to distinguish, and didn’t originally have any negative connotations at all. And while discriminating against someone who’s applying for a job is clearly wrong (even though we still “discriminate” by giving the job to one person, thus “discriminating” against the lesser-qualified, perhaps), we surely must be allowed to have some say over who we live with. I see nothing wrong at all with these ads. However, it equally means that ads that state “whites only” must also be allowed. You can’t apply the law to one section of the community, and not another: it’s discrimination!
Rob , London
The underlying theme of this is segregation – people seem to be scared of living with someone who may be of a different ethnicity. However, once people do mix together they find that they have much in common, with only a few cultural things keeping them apart. I write from experience as I am a white working class punk rocker who is married to a middle-class Nigerian woman. If Britain is to advance united as one then these adverts – and especially the mindset that accompanies them – must cease.
Bobby Smith, UK
When my mother and father first came to the UK in 1960 from the West Indies they were greeted by signs saying “no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. It was legal then and is no longer – thank God.
Samantha Gordon, London
When at university, friends and I were told a number of times that we couldn’t rent particular properties as they only rent to groups of women or mixed groups.We could provide references, were clean, tidy etc. but were discriminated against because of our gender.
Most estate agents, or letting agents in this area specifically state that they will not let premises to people on benefits. I am disabled, wholly unable to work and therefore rely on, and am very grateful for, state benefits. I have often wondered if this is illegal under the Disability Discrimination Act. This is a particular worry at the moment because my health has deteriorated and I may no longer be able to use my car and will therefore have to move because there is no public transport where I live, and because my care needs are increasing. Furthermore, refusing to let to people in receipt of benefits is short sighted, because, in most cases housing benefit is paid in full, so the landlord has the rent guaranteed; however this is a separate issue.
Siobhan King, Hereford
If racial discrimination is going to be illegal and seen as morally unacceptable by society and government then it must cut both ways. If a flat/house advert said white couple only then people would be up in arms. I think it’s just as unacceptable to say Asian only etc. There sadly is a two-tier system where racism conducted by white people against non-white people is seen as more repugnant than racism conducted against white people or other ethic minority groups by ethnic minority groups. We need to sort out this kind of ‘reverse discrimination’ across the board including all this ‘Equal Opportunities’ legislation which purely divides people, race should have NO influence in any job.
James Green, Bradford
The landlords and tenants are not restricted in who they rent their house to. So if the advert has to read “Room to rent. Man or Woman” and they want to rent the room to just a man, they then get all the calls from men and women – do they have to interview them? They surely don’t have to give their reasons. Banning this advertising just pushes the discrimination underground to a later level in the process. Wasting everyones time.
Dan, West Midlands
I am a single mother with two daughters aged 17 and 8 living at home. I rent out a room in my house and have always specified Females Only. I will not have a man living in my home as the safety of my daughters comes first. If my specification was not allowed I would simply interview any men out of courtesy then say they were not suitable. It’s my home and therefore my decision but why waste a man’s time by allowing him to apply in the first place?
Joanne Casper, Skipton
I think that external landlords should not be able to discriminate on the protected grounds. However, for live-in landlords and tenants I feel the situation is different. If you live somewhere, and are forced to let part of your property or find somewhere jointly due to the rising cost of property, then I think you should be able to decide who you live with and be discriminating when choosing housemates. I do not mean you should be mean to those who might want to live there, but you should be able to choose who you live with. Your home should be a refuge, somewhere that is safe for you to be and also somewhere that is nice for you to be. It should not be difficult or pressured in your home. I can therefore understand people being drawn to their own when choosing housemates or lodgers. If it is your home you should be able to specify. It is after all, your home.
Nathan Gauge-Klein, London
I do not see any problem with choosing one’s house or flatmates. Each culture is a variant on the highly complex network of rules that is human socialisation and the more different a culture is from another, the fewer of these highly complex rules will match – which is why, I would argue, there are problems (however strongly denied) with multiculturalism.
Naomi Phillips, Birmingham, England
I am a landlord – in my opinion a tenant should be based on their ability to pay their rent and to look after the place they live in. Race, sex, religion or culture doesn’t come into it. After all, ultimately, I will judge each person on their merits and via references. My parents suffered a lot of discrimination coming to this country but it doesn’t mean that it makes reverse discrimination OK in the present day regardless of the ideas of cultural affinity. I do agree that safe-houses for victims of, say, domestic violence are an exception.
Darryl Edwards, London