Prospective tenants are being asked by landlords to provide personal details in order to secure a contract, raising fears of discrimination.
Renters are being subjected to extreme vetting procedures by letting agents and landlords who are demanding personal statements – and even photographs – to choose between prospective tenants.
Amid the worst rental market conditions to date, campaigners say that letting agents and landlords are increasing the potential for discrimination by telling renters to submit personal biographies to try to sell themselves as desirable tenants.
Tenants are being encouraged to “put their best foot forward” by including as much personal information as possible in their applications, renters told the Observer, with details such as having attended Oxbridge or a Russell Group university and high salaries seen as an advantage.
Prospective tenants also reported being asked to give letting agents access to their LinkedIn profiles.
Other tactics being adopted include mass viewings, encouraging tenants to bid over the market price or pay multiple months’ rent upfront and not providing thorough information about energy costs.
An employee of the London letting agent Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward (KFH) asked a group of prospective tenants to each send a photo of themselves and a short profile along with their application to rent a property in north London.
When challenged about the need for a photo, the letting agent said, in documents seen by the Observer: “We ask for photos to help landlords form a connection with the prospective tenants – otherwise it would just be names on paper to them.”
Carol Pawsey, KFH group lettings director, said that while in a busy rental market it is “not uncommon” to provide landlords with personal biographies “to help them decide between multiple competitive offers”, letting agents should not ask for photos.
“It is not our company policy to request applicant photos, which are not relevant to the application, and we will be reiterating our policy to all branches to make certain of this.”
Dan Wilson Craw, acting director of campaign group Generation Rent, said the use of bios, akin to a rental version of a university personal statement, is “very intrusive” and that requesting photos is “a recipe for discrimination”.
“Landlords might pick the tenants who appear more conventionally attractive,” he added. “If you don’t have regular work or if you don’t have a long-term contract at work it puts you at a disadvantage compared with other renters. It just adds another opportunity for discrimination.”
Calling for greater regulation of checking processes and what information landlords are permitted to use, he said it is currently “very opaque”.
The government released a white paper in June and the levelling up, housing and communities secretary, Michael Gove, recently said that the renters reform bill would be published in “a couple of months”.
On Saturday, it was revealed that the number of housing projects granted planning permission in England last year fell to its lowest level since 2006, when collection of the figures began.
The failure to build enough homes in places that people want to live has created “the worst rental market we’ve ever seen”, said Wilson Craw.
“According to Zoopla, rent on new tenancies is worth 35.6% of earnings, which is higher even than the last housing boom in 2015-16.”
Paris Williams, 24, has been looking to move from her flatshare in north-west London for a year and a half without success, sending up to 15 messages a day about properties, The policy officer said: “I started to come across some really corrupt things. Racism, classism, all the isms, it’s there.
It’s just a cesspit, the rental market. It’s like applying for jobs.
“It probably is worse than applying for a job because at least in job applications employers have to be a bit more discreet about racism … Landlords can get away with saying ‘can we see your LinkedIn?’”
Tom Darling, the campaign manager for Renters’ Reform Coalition, made about 10 applications, which all required bios, when he was looking for a new home between December and January.
In one of the applications he was also asked for a photo, which he declined to do.
“It doesn’t take a genius to work out what might be being done with that photo is some form of discrimination,” he said.
The ambiguity over what to include in a personal statement is also a problem. “Estate agents know that they probably shouldn’t be saying ‘you need to really sell yourself hard’, but that is the implication. So they say put your best foot forward and look at you with wide eyes.”
Legislation has failed to keep pace with the mounting housing crisis, Darling said.
A spokesperson for the National Residential Landlords Association condemned the personal statement phenomenon.
“Practices such as this, which have the potential to lead to discrimination, are wrong and have no place in a modern rental market.
“The only criteria landlords should use when making decisions about who to rent to should be factual measures of an applicant’s ability to sustain a tenancy and meet their obligations – best confirmed through credit checks, verification of their income and references regarding previous tenancies,” the spokesperson said.
Nathan Emerson, the chief executive officer of Propertymark, which represents property agents, said: “The requirement of such bios is not a blanket practice we would advocate but a landlord may instruct an agent to find out as much as they can to assess if a prospective tenant can sustain a long-term tenancy in their property.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Community said: “We are committed to delivering a fairer deal for renters. We will bring forward a renters reform bill in this parliament, abolishing ‘no fault evictions’ so that all tenants have greater security in their homes and are empowered to challenge poor conditions and unreasonable rent rises.”