A reporter approached agents in North London posing as a landlord who wanted to avoid letting to black people. Ten firms said they were prepared to agree to this - and when two researchers enquired about properties to let, the black researcher was told that the property was no longer available, while his white colleague was offered a viewing.
One of the lettings agents told the reporter: "We cannot be shown discriminating against a community. But obviously we've got our ways around that. Ninety-nine percent of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans or any troublesome people."
The lettings agents either told Afro-Caribbean applicants that the flat was no longer available, or simply failed to return phone calls. "We can always make an excuse that it's under offer, we are just waiting for someone's references," said one.
The Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality thinktank, has carried out a survey on the experiences of black people seeking private rentals. It found that 29 percent of Black Caribbean respondents, 28 percent of Black Africans and 27 percent of Pakistanis had experienced discrimination - compared with just one per cent of white people.
"It's shocking that in 2013 outright racism is still stopping people from finding a home. Many people think that the days of landlords hanging 'No Blacks' outside their properties are long gone, but discrimination in the housing market clearly still exists," says Rob Berkeley, director of Runnymede.
"Estate agents should be proactively ensuring that all of their clients, regardless of ethnic background, have equal access to their services."
Any racial discrimination is banned under the Equality Act 2010, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a code of practice on racial equality in housing. This extends not just to tenants' colour, but also to their religious belief: the document gives the example of a landlord who opens a building's laundry room only on Saturdays. This, it says, amounts to discrimination against Jewish and Muslim tenants and is against the law.
People that believe they have experienced racism from a lettings agent can make an official complaint through the Property Ombudsman. However, unlike a court, the Ombudsman can't cross-examine witnesses under oath. This means that if an agent simply denies being racist and there's no objective evidence such as phone call recordings, there's little chance of success.