The freeze on housing benefit has been an unmitigated disaster. Private rents have risen while benefit rates stayed stuck, and people across the country are struggling 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 shows the truly devastating impact the freeze is having on people’s day to day lives. Over half of private renters receiving housing benefit (57%, which is 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%, so an estimated 727,000 people) said their housing situation kept them awake at night. People also said they were left feeling hopeless (46%, 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 these people are expected to deal with.
Every month, people are faced with the impossible task of scraping together hundreds of pounds they don’t have to make rent, often having to use other benefits like disability payments or child benefit, or cutting back wherever possible.
Our front line workers routinely hear from single parents having to sell their possessions, choosing between food and rent, or switching the heating off in order to be able 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%.
Let’s check that out for a second. A 1.7% increase works out at around £10 a month. But the average gap between housing benefit and rent is already over £100 a month for someone on a very low income.
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’s 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 now. 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 to do this.
People are literally sick with worry over their housing.The government has the cure – it’s what housing benefit is for. Let it do its job.