A Black business owner has been paying twice as much rent as her white neighbour who lives in an identical property.
For the past four years, Selma Nicholls has been leasing a “live/work” unit in north London from Sanctuary Housing association.
These properties are designed to accommodate tenants’ professional and personal lives.
However, during a conversation with her white neighbour on the day after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of US police, the 40-year-old learned that she was being charged a completely different rate.
Nicholls said the only difference between her and her neighbour is their ethnicity, and she believes race is a key factor in this disparity. Sanctuary has denied the claim.
The neighbour has since provided Nicholls with proof of the disparity, seen by HuffPost UK, and said: “We should all be looking out for each other.”
Nicholls has been paying £1,000 more rent a month than her neighbour since August 2018, and was paying £500 a month more for the year before that, giving a grand total of £30,000 difference.
“My first reaction was disbelief and I immediately sought clarification from my neighbour,” Nicholls told HuffPost UK.
“As a Black single mother with an independent fledgling business in Tottenham, one of the poorest wards in [one of] the most deprived boroughs in the whole of the UK, it is staggering that I have been paying double the amount of rent for the identical property as my white counterpart.”
As per her contractual agreement, Nicholls’ rent increased incrementally between 2016 and 2019: £1,000 a month in the first year, £1,500 a month in the second year; and £2,000 a month in the third year. After the third year the rent remains at £2,000 per month for three more years.
On the other hand, her neighbour’s rent has remained fixed at just under £1,000 a month after she asked a Sanctuary worker for a temporary rate freeze for financial ease. Nicholls had made the same request as she struggled to get her business off the ground, but was refused by the same worker.
Meanwhile, despite the neighbour’s freeze having long since expired, her rent has not been reviewed or increased, Sanctuary has confirmed to HuffPost UK.
“To find out about this disparity and know that the only difference between us is race – I just didn’t want to believe that this was happening and Sanctuary has not given a proper explanation,” Nicholls said.
“This appears to be discriminatory practice and goes against the company’s ethos of treating residents equally and fairly. I feel like I’ve been discriminated against. [...]
“There’s no other difference between my neighbour and I. It seems that Sanctuary felt a sympathetic connection towards her which allowed her to receive this sweetheart deal which has made her experience a lot easier.”
The neighbour has also been permitted to sub-let to a lodger, which Nicholls is not allowed to do.
When this was put to Sanctuary, a spokesperson said: “Our lease agreements would not generally allow tenants to sub-let their property or any part of it.”
Nicholls’ neighbour, who we have chosen not to name, told HuffPost UK she felt compelled to support her.
″I never would have thought that mine and Selma’s rents weren’t in line with each other and I was shocked to hear that she was being charged almost double,” she said.
“Of course allyship is important but to stand up for someone when they are not being treated fairly is what it means to be a good neighbour and part of a community.
“We should all be looking out for each other to make sure people aren’t being driven out of their neighbourhoods, especially in view of the rapid gentrification of Tottenham.
“While I never questioned the need to fight for Selma’s rent to be the same as mine, I am also incredibly fearful that it will mean a rent rise that I cannot afford, especially as most of my income has been put on hold by Covid 19, and I will have to upend my life again. Renters in the UK have very few rights and the fear of eviction or rent increase is often a real hurdle when fighting for fairer treatment.”
Nicholls is the CEO and founder of Looks Like Me, a talent agency that aims to raise the profile of underrepresented groups in the fashion and advertising world.
Like many other businesses during the Covid-19 lockdown, the agency’s income stopped and Nicholls was awarded a small business grant from the government to cover her rent for March to June 2020.
She struggled to make it stretch between covering rent and food while her neighbour, who received the same grant, didn’t have that problem.
When Nicholls couldn’t pay her rent on time over a four-month period in 2019, Sanctuary Affordable Housing served her with an eviction notice.
Sanctuary did not address the circumstances around this eviction notice when asked by HuffPost UK.
Nicholls immediately made a complaint to the housing association, with help from her local MP David Lammy. The neighbour, who Nicholls describes as an “ally”, has assisted by providing proof of her discounted rent and lobbying for equity in the price.
“My neighbour has been fantastic – she’s been an ally in the sense where she’s been open about her fees and shown me letters confirming her rent amount. She feels it’s really unfair and thinks it makes sense for them to increase her rent and lower mine so that we meet – but they’re not prepared to do that at all,” Nicholls added.
Sanctuary has not commented on this suggestion when approached by HuffPost UK.
Lammy’s office confirmed to HuffPost UK that he has written to Sanctuary to make an enquiry on Selma’s behalf, and that Sanctuary has not responded after being contacted multiple times.
Nicholls was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) some years ago and this experience has severely impacted her mental health.
“My daughter’s eight years old and sometimes asks me why I am crying. I’m crying because this injustice is not fair,” she said.
“From the get go, I’ve been placed at a disadvantage and it’s been so hard trying to push this business knowing that I could’ve hired an assistant for £30,000, there’s so many things I could’ve done to help what I’m doing – I’m an advocate for diversity, inclusion and equality.
“I talk about that every day from this premises. I’ve built an organisation based on those values and to know that I’ve been subjected to this unfairness...it’s hard.”
Sanctuary has denied any discrimination against Nicholls, and acknowledged it should have reviewed her neighbour’s rent earlier.
Housing inequality does exist. A recent study by the Human City Institute found the level of what experts call “housing stress” is much higher in Black communities than it is among white people.
Homelessness has also increased over the last two decades within those communities in comparison to the rest of the population.
Between 2009/10 and 2016/17, the number of homeless Black households almost doubled, rising from 5,600 to 9,330 before falling back to 8,050 in 2017/18, a government audit has highlighted.
Some 17% of all complaints against UK estate agents last year were related to discrimination against customers, the Property Ombudsman recently revealed.
The English Housing Survey (2018) highlighted a disparity in levels of home ownership between different communities: almost three-quarters of Indian households were homeowners, as were 68% of white British households. At the other end of the scale, just 20% of Black African people owned a home. This suggests that Black households are more likely to rent properties and be at the mercy of discrimination from landlords.
Earlier this year, it emerged that landlord Elina Vimbsone had banned African tenants from renting her central London property – because “they make the house smell”. She added that her property was “only for European people”.
In 2017, Fergus Wilson – one of the UK’s biggest buy-to-let landlords – instructed agents acting on his behalf not to let his properties to “coloured people” because the smell of curry “sticks to the carpet”.
Over in the US, analysis has shown that African-Americans pay more for identical housing in identical neighbourhoods than their white counterparts, and that this rent premium increases as neighbourhoods get whiter. An equivalent study has not yet been conducted in the UK.
Nicholls, a mother-of-one, is well aware of racial and social equalities.
“I have a name that’s very powerful from the Civil Rights movement in America. I believe in equality; I’ve being putting blood, sweat and tears into the cause of people being treated fairly, so Black people are seen as our authentic selves, especially our children,” she said.
“To be building a business from scratch and training myself as a spokesperson going around the world talking about equality... I now feel wounded. I went through a stage of feeling deep rage – from a place deep in my soul – to confusion and sadness.”
Nicholls is speaking out because she feels a sense of obligation to raise awareness.
“Me speaking out goes beyond me; it’s other other female founders, young people growing up to understand that fairness should be for everyone,” she said.
“I’ll be doing myself a disservice and other people if I don’t share this information at some point. I have a duty of care. This is not on me – they’ve created this and they need to be held accountable. The heaviness that I’ve been feeling is slowly being lifted even just speaking about it.”
Nicholls added: “They couldn’t admit to making a mistake, at the very least. A Sanctuary staff member apologised to me over the phone and but refused to put it in writing when I asked.”
In an email sent to Nicholls on June 9, and seen by HuffPost UK, a commercial property manager appeared to double down on the housing association’s rent disparity, describing her complaint as “inappropriate”.
“Thank you for your email outlining your disappointment to discover that there is a difference in the rental figure between yourself and your neighbour,” the email rent.
“I have subsequently reviewed the terms of your lease and have noted that you have been correctly been paying rent in line with the agreement. As a result, it would be inappropriate for this to be raised as a complaint at this time.”
The housing association then suggested sending a surveyor to visit Nicholls’ property to “inform how we move forward”. Nicholls had doubts about why such a move was necessary and, mindful of the risk of transmitting Covid-19, declined the offer.
A spokesperson for Sanctuary Housing told HuffPost UK: “Ms Nicholls and her neighbour have each been paying the correct rent in line with their individual lease agreements for their living/work properties, which were entered into at different points in time and were both set at a discounted rate to market rent.
“We have looked into the case and we recognise we should have reviewed Ms Nicholls’ neighbour’s rental agreement and because we didn’t, they have continued to pay their initial discounted rate.
“Given that both tenants are now out of the fixed period of their leases, we are in discussion with Ms Nicholls and her neighbour and are reviewing both rental agreements.
“We want to be absolutely clear: discrimination has played no part in this matter. We are deeply saddened to think that we have made a resident feel this way and we will be speaking to Ms Nicholls about her experience to help us improve the way we communicate with our customers in the future.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.