Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Sleepless nights for the families hit by the threat of new ‘bedroom tax’

About 80,000 people in Yorkshire look set to hit by a “bedroom tax” when the Government’s controversial Welfare Reform Act comes into force this April.

The under-occupancy charge will cut the amount of housing benefit available to households with one or more bedrooms classed as spare under the new rules.

Its supporters say it is unfair for the taxpayer to subside extra rooms when there is a shortage of housing across the country. But its critics insist it will have a devastating impact on vulnerable tenants and local economies.

Approximately two-thirds of people nationally who are hit by the cuts will either be disabled or caring for a disabled person. One of them, Cheryl Guillot, 48, from Holywell Green near Halifax, said she had been left “totally bewildered” by the situation.

Former special constable Cheryl, who is a full-time carer for her disabled son Jordan, faces being forced out of her housing association three-bed bungalow where she has lived for the past 15 years.

She said: “This is the home I thought I would be in for life. I am totally bewildered by the future, I could honestly cry. I’m just so down, I haven’t been sleeping.”

Ms Guillot, whose baby grandson Carson’s ashes were scattered in the garden after he passed away from cot death, said: “I’ve spent hundreds of pounds on my garden. I’ve looked after my home. I wouldn’t have done that if I thought I’d have to leave.”

And she said even if she wanted to move, there are no two-bedroom bungalows nearby and she could be forced to leave the area.

“They say it’s not a tax but they are taxing on the ‘luxury’ of having a box room,” she added.

Ms Guillot stressed she felt the Government seemed to have forgotten about family values and the role of community life. “They say they are trying to free up houses for families, but how can they free up my house before they’ve got me somewhere to go? Children need to know that even when they leave home they’ve got somewhere to come back to in case it goes wrong.”

The charge is designed to increase the supply of available houses but Rob Warm, Yorkshire and Humber lead manager at the National Housing Trust, thinks it will just mean the poor will get poorer.

He said: “The challenge we’ve got right across the region is we haven’t got smaller properties to move people to. We are giving people the choice; have your benefits reduced or move to a small house that doesn’t exist 
– which isn’t much of a choice really.

“The housing association is 
going to struggle to find enough one-bedroom properties to fill the need there is undoubtedly going to be.

“The Government is trying to reduce the housing benefit bill, but we think the best way to do that is to try to build more houses because rental costs are so high. There also needs to be some discretion for landlords to decided what is and isn’t a bedroom.”

Under the new rules, all working-age tenants in receipt of housing benefit will be affected by the charge – £14 for one unoccupied room, £25 for two.

The charge applies irrespective of whether the room is occupied on a part-time basis, for instance by a child in the armed forces or university, whether someone is disabled or if foster children sometimes occupy the room. Parents with two children of the same sex under 16 or different sexes under 10 will also be expected to make them share.

The Yorkshire constituency with the largest number of properties affected will be Leeds Central, where about 2,678 households face the charge. Next is Kingston-upon-Hull East with 2,423 households, according to the National Housing Trust.

Hilary Benn, Leeds Central MP and Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government, said: “These are people’s homes, they have links in the community. Facing people with the choice of either having to cut back on heating or other expenses to cope with the increased rent or up sticks and move somewhere else, I think is profoundly disruptive of family life.

“There are a lot of my constituents who still aren’t aware this is coming, and a number of people will be hit by both the bedroom tax and by the council tax benefit cut, so they will be hit twice over – which is going to make life even more difficult for them.”

In addition to the housing benefit cut, the Government will cut 19 per cent of council tax benefit. Some councils, such as Harrogate Borough Council will fund the reduction from their reserves and not increase bills. Others, such as East Riding Council, will increase the minimum contribution by tenants up to as much as 25 per cent.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “It’s not fair people for people to continue to live in homes that are too large for their needs, when in England alone there are around five million people on the social housing waiting list and over a quarter of a million tenants are living in overcrowded conditions.

“We are giving local authorities an extra £155m this year so that they can help their vulnerable tenants through the housing benefit reform. A further £30m a year will be targeted to disabled people with an adapted property and foster carers.”

The lack of affordable housing across the country has become a toxic political issue since the start of the recession, as the number of new homes being built has declined. Last year, housing charity Shelter calculated that the cost of buying a house had gone up 43 times in the past 40 years. They said if food prices had risen as much housing, a four pint carton of milk would cost £10.45.

Kay Boycott, Shelter’s director of communications, policy and campaigns, said: “This will hit over half a million families in social rented homes which are deemed to have ‘extra’ bedrooms. However, not all of these bedrooms are standing empty.

“Imagine a dad who has his child to stay once a week, or a young disabled child who needs their own room apart from their brother or sister. They will be penalised for having bedrooms that are really needed. Family finances are already squeezed, and with a shortage of social homes of the right sizes in the right places, it will be very difficult for many to downsize. The result will be people desperately struggling to stay in the family home.”

John Davies, the Leeds chair of the Hands Off Our Homes campaigning group says it is important people stick together to fight any attempt to move them.

He said about 4,900 single people will be affected by the change, but there are not enough one-bedroom properties in the area. “We know a lot of people, especially people with mental health problems, who are very concerned and don’t know what they are going to do when April comes.

“But if people have the strength to stick together then it might give them confidence to say ‘we are not going to move, we are going to stay where we are’.”

Mr Davies said he believes the obsession with property as an asset rather than as a home has led to the housing crisis in the first place. “Social or council housing used to be secure tenancies for life, so a community spirit was built up.

“If you go round the council properties there are, you often sense that people have lived there for a long time and they don’t want to move. They may have taken over tenancy from a parent and to uproot themselves will be a severe encumbrance.

“You’ll also find people have put a lot of money into their homes, presuming they would stay there. They’ve put money into the house, into the garden. A single mother with three grown up children has put thousands of pounds into her house and she does not want to move.

“The danger is whenever your family size changes you’re going to have to change your house, and I can’t think of anything dafter than that.”

Who will be affected?

Bedroom tax will not affect you if there is no Housing Benefit claimed for your household.

Bedroom tax will not affect all Housing Benefit claimants. The Government states that if you or your partner were born before October 5, 1951 you will not be affected.

You will not be affected if you have shared ownership, or if you are a resident of a one-bedroom property. Single people over 16 need a bedroom to themselves, but all couples are expected to share a bedroom. So, a couple without children in a two-bedroom property will judged to be under-occupying one bedroom.

Two children under the age of 10, or two children of the same gender aged 11 to 15, are expected to share one bedroom. The rent eligible to be paid by Housing Benefit will reduce by 14 per cent if one bedroom is under-occupied and reduce by 25 per cent if two or more bedrooms are under-occupied. This is the maximum bedroom tax deduction rate.