Peterborough families on housing benefit are being priced out of almost all homes to rent in the city, it has been claimed.
According to new research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, just 0.47 per cent, or one of 214 two-bed properties (in Freston, Paston), were affordable in Peterborough, compared to six per cent nationally.
And this does not take into account landlords’ reluctance to let to benefit claimants.
The local housing allowance (LHA) was frozen as part of the Government’s austerity policy in 2016. The allowance, which varies from region to region, was supposed to cover the cheapest 30 per cent of the local rental market. However, since the freeze rents have kept rising.
In a new and extensive piece of research, the Bureau collected the details of 62,695 two-bed rental properties across England, Wales and Scotland that were advertised on a single day. By mapping these against the LHA rates in each area, it found just 5.6 per cent are actually affordable on benefits.
As part of its investigation into housing and new homelessness laws, the Bureau has found that councils have been encouraging those facing or experiencing homelessness to try renting privately. Many councils were simply giving vulnerable people lists of property rental websites.
A huge number of cities and towns had barely any two-bed properties that would be affordable on housing benefit; more than 100 areas had 10 or fewer.
Across the country, people are regularly having to rent more expensive homes and top up their housing benefit with other funds to cover the shortfall.
The Bureau’s analysis found that the average British council would need to raise their benefit allowance by £100 each month to make the cheapest 30 per cent of the two-bed properties affordable. But in some areas that was much higher – in Central London, claimants would need an extra £1,422 a month.
Refusal to let to those on benefits makes the shortage of affordable properties even worse. Reporters from the Bureau contacted the landlords of 180 two-bed properties that would have been affordable on housing benefits. In each case the reporter claimed to be a single mother with an eight-year-old daughter.
Half of those landlords said definitively that they would not let to anyone on benefits. Of those that were left, more than half said they would consider letting to the hypothetical family, but only if they could fulfil further conditions, such as paying six months’ rent in advance or providing a guarantor. One property site asked for a week’s rent in advance to even talk to the landlord.
While many of the landlords only refused to let when contacted in person, some are more blatant in their bias against tenants on benefits. The Bureau analysed the text of some of the advertisements and found 80 that explicitly stated “No pets. No DSS (a slang term for benefits claimants)” or “no housing benefit”.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “The freeze on housing benefits has been truly disastrous. People up and down the country are having to make impossible decisions on whether to cut back on food for their family or heat their home just to make up the shortfall between their benefit and rent.
“In the worst case scenario, families are facing homelessness simply because there is nowhere they can afford to live. Even when a family is able to afford their rent, we see many being turned away by landlords and agents with a ‘no DSS’ policy - a practice we believe to be discriminatory and unlawful.
“If this Government is serious about tackling homelessness, it is not enough to just lift the freeze, as it has said it will. It must also increase housing benefit rates to ensure they cover at least the bottom third of the rental market across the country so people can retain their homes and avoid becoming homeless.”
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said “We should all have a safe and secure home. This investigation paints a clear picture that for the overwhelming majority, we’re not meeting this basic human need. This is simply unacceptable - we can and must do better.
“Housing benefit is a tool to prevent people from being forced into homelessness in the first place. But rates are currently failing to cover the cost of even the cheapest private rents in the majority of areas, pushing people to rent more expensive properties and making up the difference - skipping meals or not putting the heating on to try and ease this financial pressure and keep the roof over their head.
“We can’t let individuals shoulder this burden simply because housing benefit hasn’t kept up with rising rents.”
Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at Centrepoint, said: “For the tens of thousands of young people who become homeless each year through family breakdown, housing benefit is a lifeline, not a lifestyle choice. It should mean that they can access safe, secure housing and progress in education or work, leaving the trauma and insecurity of homelessness behind.
“But as this investigation shows, in many areas the welfare safety net no longer comes anywhere near covering the real cost of renting locally. And despite having exactly the same housing costs as anyone else, under-25s receive less support through the benefits system, simply because of their age.
“Young people deserve a fairer deal. By restoring levels of housing benefit so they truly cover market rents, the Government could not only give homeless young people the chance to move on and find a long-term home – it would also free up vital bed-spaces in homeless hostels for others in urgent need.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Providing quality and fair social housing is an absolute priority. The Government increased more than 360 Local Housing Allowance rates this year, by targeting extra funding at low-income households.
“We’re investing over £9 billion in affordable housing and an additional £2 billion after 2022. And we have abolished the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap – giving councils across the country the tools they need to deliver a new generation of affordable housing.”