Our regular guest blogger Ben Reeve-Lewis gets out his soapbox, and even peers into his crystal ball …
Housing benefit and LHA – what are they thinking?
I notice today that after climbing down over prison sentences for knife crime the government is also getting,……well not exactly cold, but definitely chilly feet about housing benefit plans. Or are they just seeing sense and listening to people in the know?
Housing Benefit / LHA – the lowdown
In case you’re not aware, in order to cut £1.765 Million from the housing benefit budget the government, amongst other measures, are raising the age limit for receipt of Single Room Rate (SRR) from 25 to 35. The SRR is a regulation that says if you are under 25 and on housing benefit you will only get the amount of rent required to occupy a bedsit. If you want your own self contained 1 bedroom flat you will have to make up the difference in rent yourself
Obviously if you are on basic Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) @ £65 a week where are you going to get that extra cash?
Now I don’t means to diss (By which I mean London slang speak for ‘Disrespect’……not the town in Norfolk) landlord’s of bedsits but HMOs (House in Multiple Occupation) are generally regarded as poor quality accommodation with more than their fair share of social problems. For many the only way out of that is when they get old enough to get out from under the rent cap.
Under the new rules, due to come into force in April 2011, a person on benefits is stuck in that type of accommodation until almost middle age.
Panic stations at Local Authorities
When the government announced these plans a few weeks ago many London authorities went into a panic and block booked bed and breakfast accommodation down to the south coast and north to Luton to deal with the anticipated deluge of homelessness cases coming from hundreds of thousands of people who would be priced out of their accommodation. One MP likened the effect to be on par with the Highland Clearances of the 18th Century.
The government seems to have actually listened to cries of protest and have slightly amended the plan. Now, people on benefits already wont be hit by the new proposals until January 2012. however, any new claimants from April 2011 will be affected.
Not being cynical, but …
The idea behind this is to allow existing benefit claimants time to downsize from their self contained flat to a room in a shared house. Now I hate to sound cynical but do you really think that many of the countless thousands of benefit claimants who are going to be affected by this will rush, pro-actively, to move from their flat to a bedsit? I know In wouldn’t!
Don’t you think that it is likely that by January 2012 most of them will still be in their self-contained homes? This just means that the effects of the new model ‘Highland Clearance’ are just going to be delayed for a further 9 months.
What about the landlords?
And how will this hit landlords? Obviously landlords of HMOs will benefit from the increased numbers of tenants looking for available rooms but what about the landlords who will have tenants who can no longer afford the rent because of the cuts?
As is so often the case with all government plans, the savings that are trumpeted in one area just pushes the real cost somewhere else. Extending the SRR may save millions in HB but it is the landlords of benefit claimants who will have to pick up a large part of the tab in rent arrears that they cant recover and costly evictions, perhaps going Dutch with Homelessness units who will have to split the bill and spend out on rehousing some of them.
They have another plan too, which is to temporarily lift the LHA restriction, for landlords who are willing to reduce the rent levels to keep people in their homes. Once again, the landlord is footing the bill for housing benefit cuts. (LHA is the ludicrous and nationally unpopular system whereby direct payments of housing benefit to landlords is prohibited, even if the tenant actually wants it).
I wanted to write this because all of the protests about SRR are in support of the tenants, who I also support, but nobody talks about the landlord side of things here.
Part of government thinking in raising the SRR age limit is to get people off of benefits and into work but the jobs have to be out there for them to have and the recession’s eclipse is wide and dark.
Nobody is saying that cuts in public spending aren’t necessary but Mr Shapps You have to think more than one step ahead before you come up with a plan like this.
What about better HMOs??
Alternatively is it possible to raise the general standards of HMOs in order that they aren’t seen as poverty accommodation? Licensing has been much in the news but I am thinking beyond standard physical conditions and more into the lifestyle quality of them
Until the 1960s there was a long and acceptable tradition of gentlemen’s lodgings, that weren’t considered low quality options. I am not saying that we should wind the clock back and live like Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway in the Lavender Hill Mob, but surely we can have HMOs that are an inviting and humane environment.
I know an HMO landlord who has internet installed, the accommodation is all clean, well decorated and there is even a sense of community amongst the tenants. Too many of the ones I visit are like something out of Charles Dickens.
About Ben Reeve-Lewis: Ben has worked in housing in one form or another since 1987. He has variously been a Homelessness caseworker, Head of Homelessness for a local authority, a TRO and Housing law trainer. He now divides his time between doing contract Tenancy Relations work and as a Freelance housing law training consultant for the CIH, Shelter, Sitra and many more. Read more about Ben here.