From the TUC

A new Housing Benefit Deal for Young people

28 Nov 2014, by Guest in Society & Welfare

This week UNISON Launched  a new report: A New Housing Benefit Deal for Young People calling for a more joined up response to prevent young people becoming structurally impoverished, whether they are in or out of work, due to high rents in poor quality housing in the private rented sector.

For local authorities and the voluntary community sector the worry is that the combined impacts of high rents in the private rented sector, housing welfare reforms, localisation of welfare support, lack of social housing provision and a focus on affordable homes and rents are happening at the same time with insufficient housing support for some young people.

UNISON’s report (echoing the recent TUC youth housing survey) showed  that young people under 35 are now the most predominant group in the private rented housing sector. This is not surprising given the lack of social housing and finance for home ownership. UNISON found that

  1. those in work are struggling to pay high rents and save for deposits for mortgages and
  2. unemployed or in work and on low pay, young people receiving housing benefit top ups are struggling to meet rent shortfalls due to new housing benefit rules called the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) which has cut housing benefit for under 35s.

UNISON has called for the abolition of the SAR for all young people, as the rate set is too low and there is not enough good quality or appropriate shared accommodation for young people. In particular young women and vulnerable people – pregnant women, women fleeing domestic violence, LGBT young people, homeless and people with mental health issues – are faced with having to go into unsafe and insecure shared accommodation with strangers they know nothing about, broken locks, uncertainty about who has keys and poor quality standards.

A typical case study is provided by Debbie a UNISON Oxford City Housing support worker:

A young Romanian women, working on a zero hour contract – got into arrears because of all the constant changes to working hours, the landlord said she could pay them off by working (physically) for him which turned out to be minor house maintenance and light builders work. She then had an accident on site but because she was unofficially there had no recourse. She had to go off sick with no SSP payable. The landlord then started to sexually harass her. With no family in the country and minimal support network she was vulnerable. The landlord always stated he was visiting other tenants and she could not secure the front door i.e. with a chain because he could argue that he needed open access. In addition this woman was subject to regular harassment from the other male tenants who often had parties in the property and were heavily intoxicated. She often spent days in her room too scared to come out.

The SAR restrictions are driving up rent arrears and debts for young people as rather than enter poor quality and unsafe shared accommodation with strangers young people are staying put in their current homes facing an ever widening gap between the amount of housing support they are receiving and rising rents. Additionally, the evidence suggests that  the new SAR has also increased homelessness due to the increase in evictions of young people and the non renewal of tenancies due to landlords growing reluctance to provide shared accommodation to young people on housing benefits and the under 35 age group as they fear a growing rent arrears problems with this age group.  

There is also a special focus in the report on the current impacts of the Local Housing Allowance in general, the use of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) and the  Council Tax Reduction schemes and on how Universal Credit will support work incentives for  in-work benefits, particularly on young women.

The report demonstrate the  experience of the in-work poverty trap through Jenny Mullinder’s story (as published by the Young Women’s Trust):

This past week I was offered a two month part time, paid internship copywriting for a website/app. I’ll get £400 a month and the experience I’ll get by having my reviews published is invaluable. You might think great, well done; you’ve managed to land that elusive thing – a paid internship! Luckily I’ll be getting £100 a week, which, whilst not extravagant, should cover these things. This, however, is where I ran into a problem. In the eyes of the government, as I am going to be earning more than the amount of Jobseekers Allowance I usually get each week, I am deemed as being ‘above’ the line of needing any additional money from them, even though I am only working part time. Because of this, the amount of housing benefit which I receive, to help pay my rent, will decrease. This leaves a shortfall which I have to make up from my wages, as well as paying for bills, food, travel, and other incidentals of my job.

Amongst young women, the rise of part time, low paid work leaves them no better off than when they were unemployed is a real problem. When you’re faced with the choice of either taking such a job, or remaining in the arguably more stable benefits system, some will prefer the safety of knowing how much they have coming in. Zero hour contracts are still legal, and used to exploit a large percentage of workers, adding extra stress to the already fraught realities of being poor. Right now I am borrowing money left right and centre from friends, just to keep up with my bills, make essential trips across the city, and put food in my cupboards. Once again I realise how lucky I am that I have friends who are able and willing to loan me money which they won’t see back for a while, and it is with a lot of hesitation that I ask to borrow from them. However right now it is my only option to survive.

Eileen Best, chair of UNISONs Women’s Committee says:

Unless we begin to join up how to lower housing costs, improve low pay and make welfare support work in particular for young working women, we may be risking scarring  a generation of  young women’s career ambitions, aspirations for housing independence and the individual confidence that come from these

The report calls for better long-term solutions to reduce the housing benefit bill whilst raising the living standards and employment opportunities and conditions for young people:

  • Abolish the SAR completely and keep the entitlement to Housing Benefit for 16 to 24 years olds
  • Failing abolition, provide an urgent review to extend exemptions for certain groups, particularly for pregnant and vulnerable women fleeing domestic violence
  • Move the Local Housing allowance (LHA) rate back to the median local market rent and switch back uprating to be linked to the RPI and nor CPI
  • Full review of how Council tax Reductions schemes and the Discretionary Housing Payments have been used
  • Review young people’s ability to afford the 80% affordable rent and young people’s demand for more social housing units
  • Regulate the increasing poor quality and standards of the Private Rented Sector (PRS)and in particular the emerging ‘sub LHA PRS’
  • Introduce sustainable rents tied into longer and securer tenancies
  • Universal Credit needs to be reviewed to ensure that high rents and entitlements do not undermine the incentives of working for young low paid workers
  • Address the gender pay gap and employment sector divisions to enable young women, who are more disadvantaged, to be able to fulfil career ambitions and housing in full
  • Remodel Universal Credit to ensure safer delivery of payments to highly mobile young people in the PRS dealing with both frequent housing moves and  fluctuating contracts at work and zero hour contract conditions

The full report can be downloaded on UNISONs website