Graeme Brown: ‘Bedroom tax’ must not result in mass evictions
The bedroom tax will leave around 100,000 working age tenants in Scotland with between £50 and £90 a month in extra rent to pay at a time when many are already struggling to pay bills.
For families across Scotland, the choice between heating, eating and keeping a roof over their head will become even starker.
We share the concerns raised by Cosla chief executive David O’Neill in last Sunday’s press that people could be “tripping over the homeless” and we also feel the deep worry that people being hit by this tax are suffering. The “bedroom tax” is regresive and wrong and Shelter Scotland has been fighting it every step of the way, but homelessness will only be a consequence if landlords choose to evict.
We know that this cut is going to put social landlords in Scotland in a difficult position, but landlords have a choice about how to respond when their tenants find themselves in financial difficulty. Making a family homeless should be ruled out as an option. Shelter Scotland firmly believes that tenants should not lose their home because of bedroom tax arrears.
We want to be clear that everyone who can pay their rent must, and many poor and low- paid families will find a way to make up the shortfall, whether this is through making savings elsewhere in their budget, taking a lodger or working extra hours for example (although this could affect benefit entitlement). However, the spiralling cost of living and continued low wages make it unlikely that many will be able to find extra money to meet the shortfall in rent. Scottish Government analysis indicates that 22 per cent of households affected will face a cut of more than 10 per cent of their income, and so for a great many there will be no other option but to move home or fall into arrears.
The chronic shortage of one- bedroom homes in Scotland makes it impossible for everyone affected to be adequately re-housed. Scottish Government assessment has found that to meet the DWP criteria, 60 per cent of tenants need a one-bedroom property, but only 26 per cent of occupied social rented properties have one bedroom. This mismatch is not something that can be changed in a hurry, and that is why we in common with social landlords across Scotland expect rent arrears to rise when the tax is introduced.
Scotland has just marked an historic milestone in tackling homelessness. The 2012 commitment gives all unintentionally homeless households an equal right to a home. Meeting this commitment puts Scotland at the forefront of international policy to combat homelessness, but making this commitment a reality means homelessness prevention must be a priority among all Scotland’s landlords.
We know that most landlords have already begun a programme to identify those affected by the changes to their benefits and contact them to set out their options. This engagement is the first step in finding a solution. For some tenants applying for a discretionary housing payment to top up their rent may be an option, but the pot of money is small compared to the potential losses and local authorities will have to prioritise who the money goes to.
The biggest danger is that with more than 200 housing associations and 32 local authorities, all potentially with their own policy about tackling bedroom tax arrears, homelessness might be a much more costly consequence of this cut. Recent estimates have suggested that it costs in the region of £24,000 to accommodate a family made homeless. To prevent this crisis becoming a tragedy, Scotland needs a co-ordinated national response to the bedroom tax.
Every landlord in Scotland needs to make a policy commitment not to evict people who fall into rent arrears because of changes in their benefits over which they have no control. That is why we are calling on Scotland’s housing minister to arrange a summit of landlords to agree a way forward that protects tenants but doesn’t bankrupt community housing providers.
If no solution can be found, then all other options – including a legislative ban on evictions for bedroom tax rent arrears – must be on the table.
• Graeme Brown is director of Shelter Scotland
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