I am sitting in the community centre on my estate, attending a meeting on the Bedroom Tax.
25 people have turned out. Not too bad for a weekday evening, but then these are worried people. A lot of them are looking at a 14% increase in on their rent. That’s £11, maybe £15 depending on the property. (1)
The bedroom only affects people on benefits. So everyone here is on the breadline anyway. There is no way anyone here has a spare £11 per week. This is food from their children’s mouths. Or from the electricity, which everyone pays by key meter and is off half the time already.
I’m here as a benefits advisor, in case any legal questions come up.
The idea is that maybe I can answer them. And I can, but only to crush any residual hope that might be remaining.
There are very few loopholes in this one. From now on Housing Benefit will only cover one room for each couple, an extra room for any single adult and one room between every two kids.
There’s a little bit of wiggle room for bereavement and a get out for foster parents, families of serving service people and (after a legal challenge by the Child Poverty Action Group) families with severely disabled children. But that’s it.
The bedroom tax is not completely new. Tenants in the private sector have had to deal with reductions in their housing benefit for “extra rooms” for a long time. But that only ever applied to new tenancies. People could plan ahead and avoid moving into houses that were too big under the rules. This is a massive cut to loads of peoples benefit, all in one go.
So, what to do if you find yourself with an “extra” bedroom?
You could try to transfer to a smaller place. Except there aren't many. Council housing was built as family homes, for stable communities, back when governments cared about such things.
Apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment? There’s a fund, but its small and thousands of others will be applying too.
Move to private rented accommodation? In Glasgow the private sector is tiny and run by criminals, who; by the way, will be loving this.
Get a job to cover the shortfall? Yeah Right! 30% of Glasgow’s working age population are currently out of work (2) and most jobs available are casual or part time or both. Any money you did earn would be deducted from your benefits in any case. (3)
There’s only one possible conclusion, I can draw:
“The only answer to this is collective action”
It’s not lefty rhetoric, this time. There’s genuinely no other way through this. We really do have our backs against the wall.
I’ve recently read the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) guidelines to Housing Associations and Local Authorities. (4) It’s interesting to pull back and see it from the landlord’s perspective.
Imagine for a minute that you the Chief Executive of a Council. (5)
You have a whole load of housing at your disposal. You rent it out. Some tenants don’t have enough money to pay the rent. They claim housing Benefit and you recover the money from central government. You rely on this money to maintain the buildings and to provide services in your area.
So now central government has stopped paying the full cost of the rent and it’s effectively a cut to your council. Another cut. On top of the cuts you've had already.
And the government is telling you to make up the difference by taking money from the grocery budget of the very poorest people in the area?! It’s as crazy as it is vicious.
Look at it that way and it not just about immiserating benefits claimants. It’s also about destroying council housing and messing up council services.
So what to do? The CIH recommends “a programme of home visits for face to face conversations with tenants.”
Many people in my area have already experienced this. Some stranger, coming to their door and picking through their household budget, trying to find some little thing they could cut back on. Just try and imagine the humiliation of that for a minute?
But it blood out of a stone. The money isn’t there. So what to do instead? Evict 31% (6) of your tenants, and then process them all through the homeless persons unit?
No council or housing association can evict everyone who can’t or won’t pay and this is exactly why the bedroom tax can be defeated.
We go to the Anti- Bedroom Tax demo in town, me my husband and our baby boy. Someone’s brought along a piece of my own childhood. A banner reading “Paisley Anti Poll Tax Union” They must have kept it safe in a cupboard all these years. A timely reminder of what can be achieved if we all stick together.
We drive home from the demo and I’m thinking about the future as we pull into the estate. Some 930 households here are facing the bedroom tax. (7) Not me though. As a homeowner it’s not my problem.
Except; of course, that it is.
This is a lovely estate. The children play out in the street. At Halloween, we got through three boxes of mini cupcakes, with all the kids coming to our door. Nice polite kids in handmade costumes. Some with their mothers, but most allowed out on their own. A world away from the intimidating atmosphere of my neighbourhood as a child.
I want my son to grow up here, among these people; to play out safely in the streets and to dress up and collect sweeties from the neighbours on Halloween. I don’t want to see those same neighbours, harassed or evicted out of the neighbourhood. A stable community like this is one of the under-appreciated benefits of a fair society. And its benefit for everyone; not just the poorest.
It simply wouldn't survive the forced migration that the bedroom tax is intended to impose. Its for this reason, more than any other that I oppose the bedroom tax.
I hope this article has given you some sense of why you should too.
(1) This is the figure for my estate. The national average is actually higher, £14 (from the National Housing Federation)
(3) Universal Credit (which replaces most other means tested benefits from October) actually has fairly generous income disregards. So after October raising the additional money might be more of an option for some people. Unfortunately Bedroom tax begins in April, allowing 6 months in which to accrue some really crippling rent arrears.
(5) Actually, in Glasgow, all council housing has been semi privatised and farmed out to housing associations. I’m just using a council landlord as an example, to simplify the argument.
(7) I've estimated this, based on national figures and the size of the estate. Estimated based on national figures.