How UK Discrimination Law Affects Your Choice of Lodger or Flatmate

Illegal discrimination by landlords and letting agents has been widely reported by the media recently, the most well covered being BBC London's exposure of deliberate and blatant racial discrimination by some London letting agents letting flats and houses on behalf of landlords.

Although the full force of the Act may just affect the letting of whole properties, an earlier report cited advertisements for rooms in shared properties where people placing the ads were also breaking the law.

When placing an advertisement for someone to share your home (whether as a lodger, tenant or joint owner), never discriminate on the grounds of race, nationality or religion - this is against the UK Equality Act 2010. Religion and nationality are included in this legislation because they are closely associated with race and ethnicity. Where property is shared, discrimination against other characteristics such as gender, disability or sexual orientation might be permissable under the Small Premises Exception to the Act (that is to say, if you share living accommodation - kitchen, bathroom, toilet and/or lounge NOT just a front door, stairs and hallway inside a single house) but there is some controversy and difference of opinion about this, even among top legal experts in the field of discrimination law. It is possible that someone could successfully challenge this in court, particularly following the rightful public indignation stirred by BBC London's exposure of racially discriminating landlords.

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Mostly for this reason, and also to encourage the right kind of respondents, it is best practice to word your ad by describing the existing occupants - e.g. "Lodger wanted for kosher household to share with two single professional women in their early thirties." or, "Housemate wanted for Polish speaking household" or ″Gujarati speaking housemate required for vegetarian all female household″.

OK, you're saying, this might be politically correct and all very polite, but if I don't state something direct such as ″Muslims only″ I'm going to have to weed out loads of responses from people who don't fit with what I need.

Wording your ad to describe the existing housemates makes it perfectly clear that you expect your new housemate to fit in with those particular characteristics – the majority of your responses will be from people who meet that basic criteria. Now, you might also get responses from people who don't match but you will just as likely get these even if you do state something such as ″Muslims Only″.
-Why? Some people will be so desperate for somewhere to live, they'll just ask anyway – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Others are just extremely pushy with an inflated ego and sense of entitlement - I've encountered plenty of such people when I've advertised property in the past (the 25 year old who couldn't understand why she couldn't live in an elderly person's sheltered housing scheme being just one), also during my time as a floor manager at a job centre. Some will just get a kick out of winding you up and thumbing their nose at your ad – the stronger the wording on the ad, the more fun it is for them!

Well, you wanted to exclude people, and if you word your ad to state something such as ″Muslims only″, ″No Hindus″, ″No Eastern Europeans″ etc, you will definitely exclude people - as well as setting yourself up for legal prosecution in the UK - good, decent, polite, nice people, the kind who will pay on time, respect your home and cause you no trouble (at least not if you're open minded and reasonable yourself) – a lot of these people will be from the group of people you actually wanted – don't believe me? What sort of person would answer an ad stating ″White British only″ - I certainly wouldn't, not because I don't fit the criteria, but because I wouldn't want to any way associate with the kind of person who would write such a thing, let alone live with them!!

But, you might say, my culture is quite different in many ways to mainstream British (American, Australian etc) culture – I really need to ensure my housemate fits. Please read on below.

Where you should discriminate

One of the main aims of this website is to encourage you, as a prospective live in landlord, to firstly consider what you need – as a person and an individual. For example, are you a quiet introvert? Are you houseproud? Do you dislike smoking? Are you going to get someone who fits with you simply by stating ″must come from X culture and can't be from Y background″ and NOT doing the additional work to ensure they fit in with you on more than just this very basic level?

Say for example, you're Japanese and you place an ad aimed at respondents from a Japanese background. You get just a few responses, all from people with Japanese parentage but who've grown up in the UK – they're familiar with some of the obvious customs such as removing one's shoes in the home, especially in a tatami room, but don't observe some of the more subtle customs and taboos, for example, they might not see anything wrong with blowing their nose in front of you! Their Japanese might be somewhat lacking too – as they're more used to English. On the other hand, you might get a response from someone who isn't ethnically Japanese at all, but spent 20 years living in Japan, loves Japanese culture and cuisine, is polite and cultured, and speaks Japanese, not only fluently, but eloquently. Which is the better fit?

What I'm saying is that you can't be certain that someone from your ethnic background will necessarily share your ways, at least not enough to live with you, but someone from outside your background very well might, or at least will agree to fit in with you where they don't – e.g. they accept they can't have their partner staying overnight as this is against your religious beliefs which they don't share but still very much respect, but they do agree with you on day to day things like cleanliness, not smoking, observing a quiet life and vegetarianism etc.

Similarly, you might be female and want another woman to share with you because you fear for your safety if you let to a man, and/or you feel sharing with a man might be an invasion of your privacy.

On the safety issue, any person you invite to live with you that you don't know well should be thoroughly checked first – this should ensure your safety. Also, just as simply picking someone from a particular ethnic group won't necessarily ensure they fit into your household, simply choosing another woman without referencing her will not ensure your safety! While there are definitely a few unsavoury men around, there are also plenty of very unsavoury women!

On the privacy issue, I believe you accept that you're now sharing a home and show respect for your lodger/housemate, just as they should for you – so you wouldn't normally go into the lounge or kitchen in just your nightie or underwear say – even if the lodger is the same sex as you.

Finally, your female lodger is likely to have a boyfriend - unless you hold very strong religious or moral convictions about unmarried couples spending the night together - in which case, you need to politely point that out to the lodger before they commit themselves to moving in, you should be prepared for the lodger's partner to spend some nights in your home, simply because it will also be your lodger's home while she lives there.

This may sound clichéd, but it's been my personal experience as a landlord that at the end of the day the kind of person your tenant or lodger turns out to be won't necessarily be determined by their demographic profile. For example, you might assume that all students are going to be irresponsible, noisy, messy party animals, but I know of plenty (including some of my own tenants!) who are quiet, conscientious, hard working and respectful. You will really only have a good idea of what the person is like once you've interviewed them and (assuming you want to offer them the room) had them verified.

Next - The Interview