Usually we’re not encouraged to go trawling property websites during working hours, yet last Friday three Citizens Advice volunteers, one Young Foundation intern and I were doing just this and hunting for flats in Hackney. We were each in receipt of a hypothetical Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and aiming to better understand the private rental market for Hackney residents receiving LHA. And what a disheartening Friday it turned out to be.
I was tasked with searching Gumtree online for one-, two- and three-bedroom properties in Hackney to see just how many came within my different (hypothetical) LHA budgets; £240 (for my partner and me), £290 (for my partner and me and our two girls) and £340 (for my partner and me and our teenage boy and girl) per week respectively.
In January this year, Inside Housing reported that the number of housing benefit claimants in Britain rose by more than 130,000 to 4.9 million in the year to October 2011. One-quarter of these claimants received LHA, the housing benefit payable to low income tenants renting from private landlords.
However, these LHA rates have recently changed, reducing the amount for which claimants are eligible. Changes, ministers argue, that are necessary to tackle the rising cost of benefits and the budget deficit, and to create a fairer system for taxpayers.
LHA varies depending on the area claimants live in and the number of rooms they are entitled to. Previously LHA rates were determined by looking at the rental prices of the area from lowest to highest and then taking the middle value (50th percentile). From April 2011 this value changed to the 30th percentile meaning, in effect, only the cheapest 30 per cent of properties are now available to claimants unless they decide to ‘top up’ their rent and pay the difference from their own pocket.
Yet it seems many people already have to ‘top up’, ask for a discount from their landlord, or find a new home within their budget. In our work with Hackney Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) for the Building Local Activism project we recently launched Hackney CAB Crowdmap, a campaign created by Catherine, a CAB social policy volunteer, in response to the recent housing benefit changes.
The Hackney CAB Crowdmap has so far received 20 reports of housing benefit shortfall locally (along with five reports of threatened eviction and two reports of homelessness). One woman in Clapton has mapped a shortfall of £25pcm in her rent, while another in London Fields faces a shortfall of £227pcm following redundancy.
With the current LHA rates being frozen according to the Hackney rental market in April 2012, we were keen to discover just how easy it will it be for these claimants to find a new home in Hackney almost three months after the changes.
However, finding a home wasn’t my only assignment. With many people reporting discrimination in the rental market against LHA claimants, we also wanted to establish just how many of the landlords of the affordable properties would accept me (and my family), as LHA tenants.
After a few hours plugging away at the property market I had looked at nearly 200 properties across Hackney. Each time I clocked up another I felt myself getting more dejected and angry at just how few properties were actually available.
I found just 25 properties within my LHA budget – 12 one-bed, nine two-bed and four three-bed properties. Just 14 per cent of all the properties I looked at.
However, as an LHA claimant, this number was soon to dwindle.
Some of the adverts stated “No DSS” outright*; others required a call to find out if they would accept me as an LHA tenant. Most said a flat-out no, with responses such as “we don’t work with the council”, “it’s the landlord’s choice” and “are you both working?…it’s at the landlord’s discretion if you are working”. One landlord told me he wouldn’t accept LHA on the property I was enquiring about (which was in budget) but would on a property which was £20/week over the LHA cap. I simply needed to “top up the rent. It’s what people do”. Another flat that welcomed LHA tenants was a staggering £100/week over budget. Maybe it was the cynic in me coming out after five hours of not finding a property, but I’m rather assuming the landlord of the last property didn’t really welcome LHA tenants.
By the end of the day I had a choice of precisely two flats – both one-bed properties and both in the E9 area of Hackney. That’s less than one per cent of the Hackney properties I looked at; a far cry from the 30 per cent apparently available to me under the new LHA cap. I was able to wave goodbye to my LHA claimant persona at the end of the day though – many thousands aren’t so lucky.
*The DSS is the Department of Social Security, a now defunct government agency that is still referred to informally to infer that the prospective tenant is receiving housing benefits.