If you are a social or council house tenant claiming housing benefit, and you are deemed to have a spare bedroom, then you will lose some of your housing benefit – 14% for one room, 25% for two or more. This cost will force many people out of their homes and away from their community, especially when combined with the cuts to housing benefit in the move to Local Housing Allowance, and potential cuts with the universal credit benefit cap. However, a fightback against the charge is growing, with LMH homes in Liverpool being occupied over suggestions the people who can’t afford to pay could do workfare in order to keep their housing.
Over the past few weeks there has been story after story about people who are going to be wrongly affected by the bedroom tax, sometimes this is because the spare rooms really aren’t spare – like those being slept in by foster children, rooms kept by separated parents of visiting children for them to sleep in, or disabled people in adapted premises or who need a second room for a partner or sibling to sleep in because sharing is either not possible or not suitable. Sometimes it’s because we are talking about people who have lived and worked in a community for decades, raised a family there but with the children grown up and in their own homes, they now have spare rooms. More distressing are those people who have suffered the death of a partner or child and cannot afford the extra charge. To stay in their community they will have to pay. Pensioners are currently excluded from the bedroom tax, but it is thought that 90,000 pensioners will get caught up in it when Universal Credit comes in next year.
It is estimated 60,000 people in Birmingham will be affected by the measure (PDF, p61). Midland Heart, the cities largest social housing association, say around 15% of their tenants will be affected, with a total £1.19m in cuts. They are concerned about their tenants struggling to pay the extra rent and going into arrears, and say that
Ultimately, the [issues with the bedroom tax] may contribute to a large turnover of properties, resulting in a churning within some neighbourhoods and therefore, potentially, contribute to a breakdown in social cohesion within some communities.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to all this is that there are nowhere near enough smaller properties for people to move to – in Hull, there are just 70 smaller properties available for the 5,500 households that will be affected. So even if you want to move, your only choice will be to go to more expensive private accommodation – this means that the housing benefit bill will rise, not fall, as a result of the benefit cut.
There have come forth a number of responses to the “exceptional” situations where spare rooms clearly aren’t spare. There are, of course, the insulting cries of “get a job” – around a quarter of housing benefit claimants are in low paid work – or “work a couple of hours extra” – completely oblivious to both the difficulty of getting an employer to give you more hours and the fact that as you earn more, housing benefit gets reduced, meaning that someone on minimum wage working 16 hours/wk would need to work 48hrs/wk to escape the average bedroom tax charge of £14. Then there are ministers telling separated parents to put their three children up on the sofa when they come to stay. Finally there is the extra £30m that is being added to the discretionary fund for councils to give to people who they consider need more housing benefit than the Local Housing Allowance pays.
Now this money is nowhere near enough – the government think the bedroom tax will save just over £500m/yr from the housing benefit bill, so just 6% of people who will have to pay extra will be able to access funds. But in Birmingham, the council budget document for 2013/14 reveals an extra blow for anyone hoping the council will cover their shortfall – a cut of £1.25m to the discretionary housing budget, which will leave 600 households whose landlords charge more than the Local Housing Allowance needing to find an average £2,000/year (p187). We don’t know how much will come to Birmingham from the £30m that is to be shared nationally, but we can be sure it won’t cover this cut.
This cut to the discretionary housing payment budget might not affect anyone applying for help with the bedroom tax, as it seems likely that the 600 families will all be in private accommodation which is far more expensive than the social housing affected by the bedroom tax. But the total budget for discretionary payments will be reduced despite the extra money relating to the bedroom tax, and the extra money is not ringfenced to bedroom tax cases. Other councils may simply be making straight cuts to the discretionary housing payment budget which will mean that people affected by the bedroom tax will have less chance of getting help after April, despite the extra money coming.
This puts the lie to the coalition’s answer to the clearest issues with the bedroom tax – those spare rooms that aren’t spare, and the lack of smaller housing – because the increase in the discretionary fund budget won’t even cover the cuts being made at council level, let alone increase the amounts available. If other council’s are doing the same as Birmingham, and given the level of cuts to council budgets being made by the coalition this seems likely, then the question must be asked, will there actually be any extra money in discretionary budgets anywhere at all?
If you’re affected by the bedroom tax in Birmingham and would like to tell your story or get involved with campaigning to stop it, please get in touch – email BirminghamAgainstTheCuts@gmail.com