Safe as houses?

By alison.blackwood, Senior Policy & Campaigns Advocate

One of the worst things any of us can imagine is losing our home. Indeed, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to housing: the importance of a place you can call home is recognised. But is it delivered in practice?

Our clients often feel that their housing situation is precarious, and we believe there are serious gaps in the welfare benefits meant to help people keep a roof over their heads.

To understand more, we asked a randomly selected group of our clients about housing in more detail.

Of those clients, 816 replied (and we’re hugely grateful for their responses). A third of those who replied had claimed some form of welfare support for housing costs within the last two years. Two thirds hadn’t.

In advance of a more detailed report on the wider findings, here we focus on the one third of clients who had claimed. Most were tenants, but their working status varied considerably. There were people working in secure jobs, on zero hour contracts, retired, currently looking for work, and unable to work.

There were positives

Around a third of those who had claimed support said that the help they were offered had enabled them to keep their home.

Many tenants said how grateful they were and felt that without housing benefit they could have ended up homeless. So the good news is that for many people the housing safety net is working to help them through tough times.

Their positive responses were particularly interesting as only 28% of all those who had received support (and only 10% of private sector tenants) had their whole rent paid through housing benefit. The rest were required to pay the shortfall, and many were still paying over 50% of the total rent.

Those aged 60+ and those who were retired were more likely to have had a positive experience of claiming housing benefit, as neither the Local Housing Allowance cap nor the bedroom tax apply to those of pensionable age.

There were more negatives

However, two thirds of those clients who had claimed housing welfare support reported experiences that had added to their financial worries and threatened their sense of having a secure place to live.

Of the 216 who commented, 37% said this was because benefit payments didn’t cover their full housing costs. 3% of those who commented reported that these problems had actually resulted in them losing their home.

Unsurprisingly, those households with the tightest budgets reported the highest levels of concern. Worryingly, it was those in full-time employment, rather than those in part-time employment or who were unemployed, who reported the most negative effects.

Long delays in processing initial claims

Around 17% of respondents who said they had faced difficulties pointed to the long delay in processing claims. Some told us that this led them to taking out more credit to pay their rent, pushing them further into debt.

Others didn’t pay their rent while they waited, and as a result of the arrears were threatened with eviction. Some tried to cover rent costs by cutting back on other essentials, including food and heating.

“I was made homeless at the end of last year because there was a two month gap between me finishing uni and unable to pay rent top up and the housing benefit putting it up.”

StepChange client, housing survey, March 2018

Problems caused by fluctuating incomes

Around 13% of our clients who had claimed housing help had earnings that varied month to month, through zero hour contracts or being self-employed, and they said that the system for updating their earnings was too slow.

They often found payments were made several weeks in arrears, or totally suspended. On top of this, any small change in circumstances and/or occasional administrative errors by their local council resulted in suspended or under-payment of housing benefit adding to their existing mix of debts.

“Because I’m on a zero hour contract my housing benefit changes monthly, so I am always in arrears with my rent.”

StepChange client, housing survey, March 2018

Problems with housing benefit overpayment

A small but significant proportion of clients — around 5%— reported that, through no fault of their own, they’d received overpayments. In a small number of cases these had continued for more than a year, and because of the complicated and bureaucratic claims system had gone unnoticed.

It was only when the council notified them that they realised, often to find they were expected to repay hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of pounds.

At a time of financial difficulty, when our clients were trying to address their debt problems, this practice suddenly added huge amounts to existing debt and arrears.

“I was only on housing benefit for a few months after my relationship breakdown and being a single parent. It stopped after a few months as I no longer qualified for the benefit, and then I owed them a lot back.”

StepChange client, housing survey, March 2018

So what can be done?

Our survey findings suggest that the gap between housing benefit payments and housing costs is a key determinant of financial resilience and a stable housing situation for welfare claimants — whether in work or not.

Those involved in housing need to learn from the examples people told us of where local councils provided appropriate and timely support.

We also need to work collaboratively across sectors to do more to prevent what’s often a temporary financial difficulty, leading to severe debt problems that can put people’s homes at risk.

At a national level, there’s a need to reconsider welfare policies that mean at a time when they need the most help, people too often face the destabilising effects of being uprooted from their homes.

A system designed to provide support for housing costs at times of need ought to deliver that result, without the current patchiness and gaps that simply add to the worries already faced by those in financial difficulty.

To find out more about our research and how we’re campaigning for change, contact our policy team.

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StepChange Debt Charity

StepChange Debt Charity

We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.