Tory ‘under-occupancy’ rules will force people to move when no affordable alternative is available, writes Dave Sewell
The government’s attack on benefits could see thousands of people lose their homes. One attack in particular, popularly known as the “bedroom tax”, is set to push almost 100,000 social housing tenants into arrears on their rent from this April.
The idea is to punish people for “under-occupying” homes that are supposedly too large for them. Tenants could lose up to £80 a month from their housing benefit for having spare rooms.
But councils and social housing associations report that they simply don’t have enough one bedroom homes to move people into.
For example in Chester-le-Street in Durham there are 41 one-bedroom properties and 600 people who will be classed as under-occupying.
So when tenants are forced out that pushes them onto the private market, where it gets even harder to find affordable homes.
Recent research by homelessness charity Crisis found that only 1.5 percent of rental homes are affordable to single people on benefits.
It isn’t tenants in social housing who are responsible for the fact there are twice as many bedrooms in Britain as there are people. The real problem is the mansions and second homes of the rich.
And this isn’t the only way housing benefit is under attack. It is being lumped into a new “universal credit” later this year, along with most other working age benefits.
That will mean that unemployed people will face the same harsh conditions to prove they are looking for jobs that aren’t there—subject to sanctions of up to three years.
And the total will be subject to a cap of £500 per household per week, far less than the rent of a family house in central London.
In all, the government’s own impact risk assessment estimates that 2.8 million people will lose out. Contrary to Tory rhetoric about “making work pay”, the majority of these will be workers—1.3 million of them full time.
But they also include 400,000 of the poorest people in Britain. Some 300,000 households stand to lose more than £300 a month.
Meanwhile MPs are set to vote this week on capping housing benefit rises for private tenants to 1 percent a year, having already broken the link with rent increases.
This means that in, say, the London borough of Islington where rent rises by between 8 and 11 percent every year, in five years the benefits would effectively be cut by almost half.
In reality it would be easy to slash the cost of housing benefit with rent controls on parasitic landlords—helping to ease the housing crisis instead of making it worse.
This is usually dismissed out of hand as impossible, but some leases that began before 1989 still have their rent regulation to “fair” increases. By now they are sometimes less than a quarter of the current market rent.
The current benefit reforms have nothing to do with taming Britain’s housing crisis—and everything to do with making it worse in the hope of scapegoating the poorest in society.
Liz Kitching from Hands Off Our Homes in Leeds explains how tenants are organising against the bedroom tax
From April I’ll have to find an extra £70 a month to stay in my two bedroom flat. I’m very worried about it, and I’m not the only one.
The fact is that there just aren’t any one bed flats for people like me to move into. You might want a one bed, but all they give you is two.
I’ve applied for a one bedroom flat and I look every day—there are none. If you’re forced to move out of social housing into private rental, even for a smaller flat the rent could be higher.
In Leeds lots of people will find themselves are in arrears. There are high-rise flats in the city centre, where the council has a policy of not putting families so it’s mostly single people, or couples over 50.
They are spacious flats, which is why the private sector is keen to get its hands on them. Most of those tenants will be classed as under-occupying.
One woman in the flats told us she’d had a council officer and a police support officer come around and asked were what she planned to do about under-occupying. She nearly had a nervous breakdown!
So we decided to relaunch the Hands Off Our Homes campaign we’d previously used to fight privatisation. We’ve held stalls in the city centre and all around the council estates and they’ve gone down so well.
Loads of people have been signing our petition, getting angry and talking politics. We’re building for a big public meeting. I say—bring it on.
The government plans to cut what it spends on council tax benefit by 10 percent in April. But it has left the decision on how to implement the cut to individual councils.
Britain’s largest council, in Birmingham, was expected to announce a cut of 20 percent for most tenants on Monday of this week.
Nearly 200,000 households in Britain were threatened with eviction over the past year—the equivalent of a city the size of Liverpool or Bristol—according to the housing charity Shelter.
The worst hotspots are the east London boroughs of Newham and Barking and Dagenham, where more than one in 40 households are at risk.
One in three private tenants now spend more than half of their take-home pay on rent. In London it’s even worse, with one in six paying some 60 percent of their net income on rent.
Most of these attacks are scheduled to take place in April, but the new universal credit benefit has already been put back to October in most of the country.
One reason is that combining so much information about people in one place has turned out to be too much of an IT challenge.
Treasury secretary David Gauke admitted that in tests in November, more than a quarter of people’s data still didn’t match up.