The Local Housing Allowance (LHA – formerly Housing Benefit) caps have not even started to bite yet. The introduction of the cap is being staggered, depending on the date on which LHA was first claimed or last assessed. The cap came into force for prospective tenants on the 1st April 2011. For existing tenants the cap comes in 9 months after the date on which the claim for LHA was first made. This means those who have a claim which began last April will have faced the implementation of the cap in January this year. Only around a third of private sector tenants are likely to have seen their benefit capped so far.
Even those who have been subject to the cap are unlikely to have been evicted yet. Eviction can be a lengthy process and one in which families in particular must go through in order to qualify for any help from the council. If a household is not formally evicted then they may be deemed ‘intentionally homeless’. Whilst councils have a legal duty to protect children they have no such duty towards adults who have been judged to have given up a home voluntarily. In practice this means Local Authorities may offer to take children into care, whilst leaving the parents to fend for themselves.
There are huge numbers of eviction cases currently passing through the courts in London. Canny tenants may still be paying their rent minus the amount which has been deducted from their LHA. This means it will take much longer for arrears to build up and the eviction process will be much slower.
Newham Council, one of London’s poorest boroughs, claim they have 32,000 people currently in urgent need of housing and are attempting to relocate residents across the UK. Only some of these people will be facing homelessness as a result of eviction due to the benefit cap. The toxic combination of the cap for new tenants, placing most houses in the Borough out of reach, and the ongoing recession, is the most likely reason Newham Council have so many homeless people on their books. These factors will create a torrent of homeless people in their own right, which will only increase as more people see houses repossessed, rents become unaffordable, and debt and money problems mount up for struggling families.
Grant Shapps revealed he is ignorant of his own policies when he claimed there are 1000 properties available on Housing Benefit within five miles of Newham. Despite the fact that 1000 homes to house 32,000 people is hardly a rosy situation, he seemed unaware that Local Housing Allowance is a regional benefit now set at the bottom 30% of local rental costs. The maximum available LHA for a four bedroom property in Newham is £300 a week. The Guardian was only able to find 68 properties within that range within five miles of the borough. Even then some of those properties will carry the ubiquitous condition of No DSS, meaning they are unavailable to people on benefits. The housing crisis in Newham is far, far greater than Shapps has tried to pretend.
The graph above (from Shelter) disputes Shapps’ claim that rents are falling. Quite the opposite is happening. A combination of soaring rents and a plunging economy would be enough to create mass homelessness on their own, without any changes to housing benefits. The 13% rise in homelessness (and 23% rise in street homelessness) reported by Shelter last year was little to do with Welfare Reform and far more to do with a flat-lined economy and rising unemployment. We haven’t seen anything yet.
The LHA caps will push homelessness even higher over the next year as more people become subject to them and are evicted as a result. The impact of the caps on LHA have barely begun to be felt.
Sadly it doesn’t end there. The aforementioned change to set LHA rates at the bottom 30% of the rental market has still not yet been implemented for all tenants. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing this move will place 800,000 properties out of reach for those who are unemployed, disabled, or on a low income. Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool are all singled out as cities which may yet come to have a homelessness problem to rival that of London. Some of those young people may come to London in the search for jobs and housing, and end up on the streets as so many did in the 1980s and early 1990s. This time however they will be replaced by low income families socially cleansed from London and other areas.
Even this time-bomb isn’t enough for the toff Government, most of whom were brought up in mansions. Previously, under LHA rules, people under 25 were only eligible for a room in a shared house. This has been increased to 35. No assessment has been done to see whether there are enough rooms in shared houses for that many people. And houses full of 20 year old students are hardly likely to opt to share with people just about old enough to be their parents. This is yet another change that has yet to be felt and in particular is likely to impact on street homelessness. Those with no children, who are not deemed ‘vulnerable’ (meaning they are not assessed as sick and disabled or claiming a pension), are not eligible for any assistance from Local Authorities. This leaves many younger people with no option but the street.
Homeless charities are reporting desperate funding problems. This will mean less hostel and night-shelter accommodation. Despite the lies of UKIP, many recent arrivals to London from Eastern Europe are currently on the streets, unable to secure work, housing or even afford a ticket home. More young people leave home everyday, sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes to escape abuse. The toughened benefit sanctions regime and the assessments for health related benefits, are seeing benefits stripped away on an unprecedented scale. Hundreds of thousands of people are being left with not enough to feed themselves or their families. New rules mean that LHA can no longer be paid direct to landlords. In desperation people will dip into LHA payments to feed themselves or keep the heating on. More people are likely to slip into drug or alcohol dependency as poverty bites and begin the downward spiral which can lead to life on the streets. Previous ‘cardboard cities’, not seen in London for 20 years, will pale into insignificance compared to what’s to come.
Plans to increase Social Housing rents to the same level as the private sector will mean even Council Tenants in some areas will no longer have their housing costs met by benefits. The Tories are currently forcing through laws which will ban squatting, whilst more evictions of traveller sites are likely. The Government could not have created a more perfect storm.
The real bombshell is not set to hit until next year. The £500 a week benefit cap will mean the end of life in Greater London for larger families on low incomes. Tens of thousands of people will be made homeless at a stroke, most of them children. The social chaos this will cause is unimaginable. The personal tragedy for those concerned almost unthinkable.
There has long been a housing crisis in the UK and the last Labour administration did nothing to address it. But the changes made by this Government will be devastating. Homelessness wrecks lives, often leaving permanent scars. Mass homelessness, on a scale never seen before in the UK, may come to be seen as one of Cameron’s most tragic legacies.