Housing benefit freeze still driving tenants from their homes, despite Universal Credit reforms

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Tom Simcock, Edge Hill University

The controversial roll out of Universal Credit has been stalled. Under pressure from across the political spectrum, work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has unveiled a “fresh approach”. Among the new measures, Rudd has announced that the government will launch a digital platform, which promises to streamline housing benefit payments to landlords, in cases where the tenant is having difficulty paying rent.

Though it sounds technical, there is much at stake: landlords wait much longer to receive such payments from the government under Universal Credit than they did under the previous system, which was administered by local authorities. And while they wait, tenants can slide further into arrears, leaving them prone to eviction – and possibly, homelessness.

If successful, the platform could benefit landlords, as well as tenants facing the prospect of eviction when they fall into rent arrears. Yet evidence suggests that the new platform cannot plaster over the deeper issues around housing affordability, which are causing benefits claimants to lose their homes.

Rising rent arrears

Research I conducted for the Residential Landlords Association showed that over the past three years, more and more landlords have reported tenants on Universal Credit going into rent arrears. In 2016, 27% of landlords said their tenants on Universal Credit had gone into arrears. By 2018, this had more than doubled to 61% of landlords.

Before Universal Credit, housing benefit could be paid directly to landlords without delay, at the discretion of local authorities. But now, landlords must wait until a tenant has been in arrears for two months before they can apply to receive the housing benefit directly from the government to cover unpaid rent.

On average, it takes 9.3 weeks for landlords to receive the first payment. By that time, the tenant could owe up to four months worth of rent. At this point, the tenant is at significant risk of losing their home, as landlords can lawfully evict tenants with two months of rent arrears. This was borne out in our research: 77% of landlords in my study reported that the main reason for evicting tenants on Universal Credit was unpaid rent.

If the government’s new platform makes it quicker for landlords to receive a direct payment, it could reduce rent arrears, help to sustain tenancies and ultimately reduce homelessness. But our research also showed that there was a significant increase in rent arrears for tenants who claimed housing benefit, but were not on Universal Credit. This tells us that the roll out of Universal Credit isn’t the only thing which is causing hardship for private tenants.

Five year freeze

These problems can be traced back to 2013, when the government reformed how the housing benefit is calculated. Previously, each claimaint’s entitlement was worked out using Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, based on private market rents in the claimant’s local area.

But from 2013, the government capped how much the LHA rate could rise – first in line with inflation, and then to 1% each year. In 2016, Chancellor George Osborne froze LHA rates for four years. In effect, this means that the housing benefit has not kept up with rising rents for five years.

Recent research from Manchester Metropolitan University found that the LHA rates were a major factor in the increase in homelessness. Researchers found that tenants on benefits were more likely to lose their tenancy, and then have difficulties finding an affordable home to rent, due to the gap between housing benefit and the rent.

Can’t make ends meet. Shutterstock.

Analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has found that 90% of LHA rates across the country did not cover the cheapest rents and that some families face a shortfall of hundreds of pounds a month.

This is extremely worrying, especially as the latest figures from the government show that there are 1.2m housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector. And statistics from the latest English Housing Survey show that 81% of claimants report that their benefits only cover part of their rent.

This means that nearly 1m low-income renters are now struggling with housing affordability, and being forced to make hard decisions about how they make up the shortfall created by the government’s housing benefit freeze.

Relieving the pressure

The “fresh approach” to Universal Credit may go some way to relieve pressure on households, by making it easier for landlords to claim rent directly from the government. But it will not address the underlying affordability issues caused by the benefit freeze.

Rudd has said that the benefit freeze should not continue past 2020 – but serious questions remain. For example, if the freeze is lifted, will the LHA rates be increased to current market rent levels? The CIH estimates that this would cost the government nearly £1.2 billion in housing benefit payments, placing further pressure on the Treasury.

Building more social housing – with rents linked to tenants’ income, rather than rising property and land values – would directly address the lack of affordable housing for society’s most vulnerable. A cross-party report from housing charity Shelter recently called for the government to build 3.1m new social homes by 2040 to this end, costing £214bn over 20 years.

One thing is certainly clear: without action to improve housing affordability and end the benefit freeze, the hardship faced by renting families, those just about managing, is likely to get worse.The Conversation

Tom Simcock, Research Fellow, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Liverpool judge’s decision recognises that ‘home’ still exists for the homeless

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Clare Kinsella, Edge Hill University

Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, has been sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:

A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person … it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being … apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.

By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.

By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.

A changing city

Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to “clean up” the city, ready for its big year.

Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics; and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.

Mathew Street, Liverpool: drinkers with houses, welcome. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.

Scorned, not supported

Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.

This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.

Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.

For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.

The ConversationBy thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.

Clare Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.