Housing

Rent arrears ‘much worse than feared’ ahead of UK cost of living crisis

Hundreds of thousands of universal credit claimants were trapped in severe debt even before ministers cut payments by £87 per month.

Couple arguing over rent arrears

Nearly 200,000 people were struggling to get out of rent arrears in May this year – a number which experts said could have risen since then. Image: Pexels

The number of universal credit claimants at least two months behind on rent soared by 70 per cent in the first half of this year, according to new analysis.

The rent debt figures are “much worse than feared”, said charity Crisis, and come just days after the government cut universal credit by around £87 per month. 

Official figures published on Wednesday show around 190,000 people in England who receive universal credit were in severe rent arrears by May this year. This compares to just over 110,000 people at least two months late on rent payments as of December 2020.

This does not take into account people who have been behind on their rent for just one month or those who have fallen into arrears since May. Between shrinking benefits, soaring energy bills and higher food costs, the real number of tenants unable to pay rent could now be higher, Crisis said.

The figures must act as a wake-up call to ministers to “pull hundreds of thousands of renters back from the brink of homelessness”, said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis.

The level of spiralling rent debt across England is “far worse than we feared”, he added.

“The cold reality of the universal credit cut is forcing people into impossible decisions about whether to turn on the heating, put food on the table for their children or pay the rent.

“How do we expect to level up the country when families can’t even afford the basic necessities?”

Economists and opposition MPs have warned of a cost of living crisis engulfing the UK. Inflation could go above four per cent by the end of the year, the Bank of England said, while the energy sector plunged into crisis and supply chain chaos was driving food cost hikes.

Housing benefits and the housing component of universal credit have been frozen since April, meaning many families could be receiving less in state support then they need to cover rent in their area.

People in this position often use the rest of their universal credit payment to make up the shortfall and avoid losing their homes, Crisis said, meaning all other essentials become even more difficult to afford.

Meanwhile as many as 1.5 million households struggling to pay their energy bills do not qualify for the Warm Home Discount, government advisers warned.

“There is still time to fix this,” Sparkes said. “It’s vital that the government use the upcoming Spending Review to reverse this decision and reinstate the £20 lifeline so we can prevent struggling families from losing their homes this winter. 

“Anything short of this could be catastrophic.” 

The Stop Mass Homelessness campaign, led by Big Issue founder Lord Bird, launched in July this year in response to spiralling debts and soaring poverty which threatens to push thousands into homelessness this autumn.

“We are literally adding fuel to the fire,” he said in response to soaring energy bills and rising poverty. “We need to keep people in their homes, or face the costly reality of a mass homelessness crisis as people are forced to choose between paying the rent or the bills.”

Reinstating the £20-per-week increase to universal credit would be “much less costly” than the price of rent arrears and homelessness, Lord Bird added.

A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve kept renters in their homes through banning bailiff evictions, extending notice periods and providing unprecedented financial support.

“Universal credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work. We’ve always been clear that the uplift to universal credit was temporary and designed to help people through the toughest stages of the pandemic.

“Our reforms to the rental sector will deliver a fairer system for all.”

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