Housing

"People on housing benefit are sick with worry – an extra £10 won’t help"

In a piece written exclusively for The Big Issue, Shelter chief executive Polly Neate explains why unfreezing Local Housing Allowance does not go far enough for renters

Polly Neate Shelter

Yesterday The Big Issue reported on Shelter’s research into how private renting has impacted on tenants’ health as well as how the end of the Local Housing Allowance freeze does little to change the reality for renters. Below, the charity’s chief executive explains more:  

The freeze on housing benefit has been an unmitigated disaster. Private rents rose while benefit rates stayed stuck, and people across the country struggled to bridge the gap – leading to homelessness, debt and poverty for many.

For years there has been every sign that politicians are happy to turn the other cheek while people on housing benefit are stressed, anxious and sick with worry.

New research by Shelter has shown that over half of private renters receiving housing benefit (57 per cent, an estimated 855,000 people) have experienced stress and anxiety as a direct result of housing concerns, like affording the rent, poor conditions and the threat of eviction.

Nearly half (48 per cent, an estimated 727,000 people) said their housing situation kept them awake at night. People also said they were left feeling hopeless (46 per cent, an estimated 690,000 people).

These figures are all higher than those for private renters not on housing benefit. And sadly, they are not surprising, given the circumstances people are expected to deal with.

People are faced with the impossible task of scraping together hundreds of pounds they don’t have every single month, often from other benefits like disability payments or child benefit, or just by cutting back wherever possible.

Our frontline workers routinely hear from single parents having to sell their possessions, choosing between food and rent, or switching the heating off in order to afford to keep their home. This Christmas would have been a cold one for many renters receiving housing benefit – over 350,000 people in England alone are currently living in fuel poverty. And Christmas presents? Forget it.

These are terrible choices that could leave anyone feeling hopeless.

So surely, it’s good news that the government has finally said it will unfreeze housing benefit? Ministers themselves have said they are “continuing to support the most vulnerable in society” by raising housing benefit – by 1.7 per cent.

Let’s check that out for a second. It works out at around £10 a month. But the average gap between housing benefit and rent is around £100 a month for someone on very low incomes.

The fact is that merely unfreezing housing benefit will do almost nothing to help the hundreds of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet in England right now. It is nonsense to claim that an extra £10 a month is enough. The situation has become far too urgent for window dressing.

Meaningful change is needed. In March, the Chancellor will announce this government’s first budget. If ministers are serious about helping those who lie awake at night not knowing how they will afford school uniforms and the next rent bill, LHA has to be on the Chancellor’s to do list.

The government must raise the level of housing benefit back up to the point where it achieves its purpose: ensuring renters can actually afford their rent. It must cover the cheapest third of local rents as it has in the past.

People are literally sick with worry over their housing, and the government has the cure. It’s what housing benefit is for. Let it do its job.

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