News and other Busyness
Packing Them In
Tina Johnson reviews the implications of recent withdrawals of housing benefit
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 16.
Karl and Emma may soon be living on the streets. Karl is 18, a trainee electrician living in Brighton. Emma is 21, a recent graduate living in Nottingham. She is unemployed. Karl was thrown out of home when he told his parents he was gay. Emma has no close family, and is in debt with huge student loans. The recent Government legislation on Housing Benefit means both may soon have no home.
A decade ago the Government stated that Housing Benefit might not last forever. Legislation introduced in October 1996, altering the qualifying categories of future claimants and the methods in which payments are made, is seen by many as the start of the withdrawal. The government claimed the changes were designed to combat fraud, although others argue it is a politicaly motivated deterrant designed to make life on welfare even harder.Young adults are the hardest hit, with under 25s now subject to rent assessment to determine the average rent for shared accommodation across the borough in which they live. This will be the maximum amount they could receive. Regulations brought in with the last gasps of the outgoing Tory government extend these new restirctions to under 60 year olds.
The legislation has met with widespread opposition from all sectors of the housing market. The National Housing Federation (formerly National Federation of Housing Associations) has slammed the new method of payment as leading to "more evictions and increased homelessness", a view echoed by Shelter, the charity for the homeless, and the Advisory Service for Squatters(ASS).
Payments of Housing Benefit will now be paid four weeks in arrears, instead of the previous one week in advance and one week in arrears. David Flindall, Housing Worker with CDS housing management agents in South East London, believes this will reduce the availability of housing as "most rent agreements are to pay rent in advance". Many landlords already refuse tenants who claim benefits and the new legislation will further aggravate this situation. 'Assured' tenants may also find their tenancies threatened. Evictions can now be sought after eight weeks build up of arrears, meaning, according to the National Housing Association, that "tenants who accrue arrears (of four weeks) ... stand to lose their tenancy because their housing benefit is being paid a further four weeks in arrears."
A spokesperson at the Department of Social Security states the intention of the legislation is to ensure "the taxpayer has an interest too". More controls on who receives payments and how much is spent are required as "spending on Housing Benefit has spiralled and ministers are anxious to prevent this continuing". They foresee no problems in enforcing the legislation as "anecdotal evidence shows no problems" from previous Housing Benefit legislation.
However the latest legislation is dependent upon cheap, safe accommodation being available for all those in need. The Department of the Environment state it is "only reasonable to assume that they (under 25s) will seek accommodation at the cheaper end of the market" and are anxious that the introduction of the legislation will "ensure Housing Benefit does not provide an incentive for young people to leave home ... at the taxpayers expense". The lower earnings of the under 25s are reflected in the lower Housing Benefit payments. This reasoning is reliant on many factors, primarily that under 25s are able to reside with parents and that cheaper accommodation is available. Rents charged by landlords do not take age of tenants into account. As Karl points out, not all parents are "fairy tale ideals who will support their children indefinitely". The options the Government are relying on "don't exist for many young people".
Shelter predict that young people will be "forced into poor quality... dangerous accommodation as they can't afford anything better." The legislation is based on economic calculations, unrelated to the realities of the Housing market. The "shortfalls in rent paid by Housing Benefit leads to increased poverty" as claimants have to make up the total themselves "resulting in eviction and increased homelessness". Claimants of Housing Benefit are already assessed as being on or near the poverty line as defined by the government, and the legislation serves only to increase the divide. Emma believes she will be trapped in the "vicious circle of jobless equals homeless equals jobless".
According to Jim Paton at the Advisory Service for Squatters: "The process by which councils are selling off surplus properties is squeezing out many short life tenants and will worsen the already huge shortfall of cheap accommodation, resulting in more squatting and widespread homelessness." Karl and Emma both believe this will be their only choice.
The legislation appears to David Flindall to be "designed to make it increasingly difficult for people to exist on Housing Benefit". As the Department of Social Security states "if people are not getting help, they will pick places they can afford. If they want better accommodation, they must find alternative funding". When asked about high rent levels and high unemployment levels meaning many can't afford to pay the extra rent themselves, the Department of Social Security refused to comment.