Archive for the ‘Benefits’ Category

A difficult read but important – how can we get this message across?

I’ve spent the last couple of years working on this toolkit – travelling round the country meeting women experiencing poverty, sharing what I know about homelessness and housign need and trying to inspire people to take action. I hope lots of you will download and read this report and take up the challenge!

A Fair Say

Women and PovertyIn this guest blog, the National Board for Catholic Women introduce their new resource, The Toolkit to Combat Women’s Poverty.

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Chilling analysis by Red Brick – which shows why we need to argue the case for housing as a public good…

Red Brick

Requiring governments to run budget surpluses earned the headlines from the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech. But few noticed that he also wants to ditch the principle that borrowing is the best way to fund capital investment.

The reasons for borrowing to invest are obvious: it enables the project to be done now, when it’s needed, and the costs are spread over the project’s life, with accountants following familiar rules to ensure that expected income will more than meet the costs of the debt. Gordon Brown enshrined the principle in the term ‘prudential borrowing’, which has applied in local government since 2003. The rules then encoded by CIPFA have been followed for 12 years without any apparent breach. Any council investment must follow the CIPFA code, with council housing uniquely limited since April 2012 by additional, Treasury-imposed borrowing caps. Nevertheless, the system has begun to produce results for housing. In the…

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Even as an irrepressible optimist I am struggling to find any reasons to be cheerful about the prospects for homelessness and housing in 2013.
The seriously dark clouds on the horizon all relate to the impact of caps on benefits and changes to the welfare system. These clouds began to gather in 2011 but the hurricane will hit in 2013. The first gale will blow in in April when the Overall Benefit Cap is introduced, effectively removing any social safety net for families with three or more children and predicted to lead to increases in homelessness and overcrowding, especially in London.
Letters have gone out from Local Authorities to households they believe will be hit by this cap and at Housing Justice we have been sharing the pain as families and agencies contact us to see if we can help. Last week we were emailed by Sarah, a single parent, who wrote, “ I have received an eviction notice from my landlord. My rent is £350 a week so when the benefit cap comes in it will leave me with £150 a week to look after my three children, one aged three and twins nearly two, so he is doing it now before I get in arrears. There will be nowhere affordable to privately rent in Islington or surrounding boroughs. I am really scared, the only support I have is in Islington and my daughter goes to a Catholic Nursery attached to the church we go to. I have an appointment with Housing Options team tomorrow but I know its going to be very difficult to get a council house in the borough.” We were able to advise Sarah to ask about a discretionary payment, and but this will only buy a year’s grace before the situation arises again.
Also in April people of working age living in Council and Housing Association properties will begin to be charged for their ‘spare’ rooms (aka the bedroom tax). This will cause real hardship, especially in the Midlands and the North where there really are no smaller properties for people to move to if they wish to avoid this new tax.
Meanwhile homelessness is undeniably on the increase. The latest figures for street homelessness in London (CHAIN data for September and October 2012) show 26% more people were found sleeping out, and the most recent numbers for homeless households in England record nearly 53,000 households (including more than 75,000 children) as homeless and in temporary accommodation. Even more disturbing is the fact that there has been a 185% increase in the number of homeless families kept in B&B accommodation for more than six weeks. This is early evidence of a system close to breaking point and comes before any further side effects of the introduction of Universal Credit in October 2013, or holding the benefit increases to 1% regardless of inflation.
At Housing Justice we are also gathering evidence of the effects of the cuts in benefits already introduced. Since January 2012 people between 25 and 34 have no longer been allowed sufficient Housing Benefit to enable them to rent self contained accommodation. This change to the Shared Accommodation Rate is already beginning to bite. For example, Fiona was living in private rented accommodation in Haringey for a year, but when her benefit was reduced she was evicted. She ended up rough sleeping and was referred to the Outreach Team, but was not found because, for safety, she kept changing her sleeping place. She has been referred to a hostel but there is a waiting list, which means she will remain homeless for at least another two months.
It certainly feels like the Government is operating the opposite of an option for the poor in its efforts to reduce our national deficit.
So, apart from battening down the hatches how can we as Church respond? Firstly, through prayer for people who are bearing the brunt of these changes, people who are homeless or overcrowded or getting deeper into debt. And not just private prayer; these prayers should be articulated in our intercessions at mass Sunday by Sunday. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (26th January to 3rd February) is a good place to start (resources available to download from http://www.actionweek.org.uk).
Secondly, through practical action, for example, providing food banks and night shelters, taking in lodgers, letting property to benefit claimants and working together with other denominations to maximise the use of our land and property in London for social and mutual housing projects, like cooperatives and community land trusts. In the same way that social housing in London in the 19th century was shaped by the actions of private philanthropists like Octavia Hill, there is an opportunity for the provision of genuinely and permanently affordable housing to be created through the gifting of church land and property to community land trusts or to housing cooperatives.
Finally, we need to raise our voices in protest against the unfair burden of cuts being placed on some of the most vulnerable in our society and in favour of the building of genuinely affordable housing in our communities. If the Church doesn’t speak up for the option for the poor that is a functioning social safety net, who will?
More ideas for practical action and protest can be found on the Housing Justice website: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.

They said that the new website needed a Director’s blog – so here is my first attempt.

What’s on my mind today is Housing Benefit, aka Local Housing Allowance. This is supposed to be a safety net benefit, something to keep people in their homes or allow them to have homes when their income is too low to cover the cost of rent. So far so good. LHA covers the cost of Council and Social housing rents for people living on benefits and is paid direct to Local Authority and Registered Social Landlords. This gives these landlords a secure income stream against which they can borrow to do things like repay the loans they took out to build the houses, keep the houses in a good state of repair, and even build more houses to rent out. People in privately rented homes generally have LHA paid to them which they then pay to their landlord, often adding a bit because the LHA doesn’t cover the whole cost of the rent.

There are lots of problems with both these arrangements. For the tenants whose rent is paid direct it can be a big deal to have to manage the rent money as well as their other living costs when they move off benefits and into work. But their homes are secure – so long as their benefit claim is maintained – and their rents are low and controlled which means the cost of the benefit to the state is also controlled. It goes without saying that there is a much bigger variation in private rents. This is especially true where people have begun to claim LHA when they were already tenants or when they have large families. It is these cases that have given rise to the claims that people are living in luxurious homes paid for by taxpayers on more modest incomes who could never aspire to such grandeur. This claim has been made repeatedly by Government spokesmen as a justification of the need to cap LHA. In fact very few people have ever received the vast sums – £2,000 per week – quoted and research in the official statistics shows only 160 households receiving more than £50,000 per year and DWP have admitted to “around 10 housing benefit claimants eligible for £1,917 or more per week”.

At Housing Justice we think that private landlords (or, more charitably, the rental market) are as much to blame for the rocketing housing benefit bill rather than tenants exploiting the system to live in luxury. Another culprit is the lack of social housing, and especially family-sized social housing. But against the backdrop of £2,000 week rent claims and the fact that a privately rented two bedroom flat can easily cost £300 per week in London it is difficult to drum up sympathy for the victims of the housing benefit caps which  have been introduced. Generally the response is that people should find work to cover the cost of their home or they should move to some where they can afford. But it is not easy to find a well paid job in these times of rising unemployment and low wages. Neither is  moving an easy option. For example, if the main bread winner of the family loses their job through ill health or redundancy, how quickly should they be expected to move? After a month, three months, a year? What about the schools, the community and family ties and support networks? The same is even more true for a single parent who depends much more on her support network and whose children really need the security of their established school. Yet in Kensington and Chelsea the Council acknowledge that most benefit recipients will not be able to afford private rented property in the borough once the caps have taken effect. Boris Johnson was ridiculed for talking about social cleansing of London’s wealthy boroughs but this is a still a real possibility. So if we haven’t succeeded in generating a head of popular steam to stop these changes (and so far, despite Boris and Crisis, Shelter, Homeless Link and ourselves, we haven’t) the next best thing to do is to plan how we can resist and respond. On 11th July the London Churches Group for Social Action is holding meeting to equip London Churches to cope with the housing benefit caps. It’s free and all are welcome. Details at: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/events.php/60/housing-benefit-caps-equipping-the-london-churches