From the beginning of April, social housing tenants will have to pay for rooms which are deemed spare by government. But disabled people say that the rules are unfair and that people with access and impairment-related needs should be exempt.
The so-called bedroom tax comes into force from 1 April. The Government hopes that by charging housing benefit claimants in social housing more rent for rooms deemed to be spare, they will be encouraged to downsize and make room for larger families.
But access needs and the lack of alternative accessible housing mean that unless they can prove that they require ongoing overnight care, disabled tenants are trapped in a situation where they will have to pay more rent.
Allen Asiimwe is a wheelchair user who lives in a bungalow that has been adapted to meet her access needs. The bungalow has three bedrooms and she has two children aged eleven and three. She is categorised as under-occupying her property under the new rules on the basis that her children could share a room.
She says that she is terrified at the prospect of having to move out.
“I was offered this house in 2009. I was waiting a long time it wasn’t like ‘here is a house for you’. To tell me to move out is like taking my life away. I will need to pay an extra £23 a week to stay. I have no income apart from my benefits. It’s ridiculous.”
Deborah Stephenson, Director of Operations at Habinteg Housing Association, which provides accessible housing, said that disabled people in social housing were taking a disproportionate and unfair hit because of the under-occupation rules.
She said: “Among our housing stock we have identified over 500 tenants who will be affected: 45 per cent live in wheelchair accessible properties and as many as 75 per cent are in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. These tenants, who were allocated properties based on their household’s needs, are now going to be hit hard by the new bedroom tax or face a difficult search for smaller properties that will not meet their needs so well. But for most, down-sizing is simply unfeasible due to the chronic shortage of wheelchair accessible properties, so they are faced with an inevitable rise in housing costs.”
She added that Habinteg was assisting tenants and was applying for exemption status for its wheelchair standard homes.
“Without this exemption our tenants will have very few alternative housing options and our only course of action is to support them to apply for Discretionary Housing Benefit Payments.”
Mrs Jones has lived in her three bedroom house since 1999. She is married and has three daughters, one of whom lives with her and one who returns from university several times a year.
In 2012, the property was adapted for Mrs Jones’s disabilities at a cost of four and a half thousand pounds.
It will cost Mrs Jones an extra £15 each week to stay in her house.
“We’ve been looking for a two bedroom house because I can’t afford the extra money. Whoever moves here will need a wet room because they won’t change it back to a bathroom. I’m talking to a lady who has an adapted house and who needs a three bedroom house but apart from her there really isn’t anyone else.”
Any move will depend on whether or not the tenant Mrs Jones has been talking to can obtain grants to make the adaptations she needs.
The rules, according to Mrs Jones, need to be less rigid.
“My legs get very jumpy at night and sometimes my husband can’t sleep with me. So if we move, he’s going to have to sleep on the sofa.”
Judy Blake has bipolar and lives in a two bedroom property in Leeds. Her son is at university but returns home as often as he can.
The cost of remaining in the property will be an extra £10 a week.
“I’ve already started cutting back on the heating and buying cheaper food, I’ve got no choice. If I move to a one bedroom place, where will my son go when he comes back from university? It’s important for me to see him as much as I can because he’s the only relative I have. I am bipolar and had an abusive childhood and find it difficult to make friends. He’s the only person there when I’m not well.”
Gill Payne, Director of Campaigns and Neighbourhoods at the National Housing Federation, says that 660 thousand people will be hit by the Bedroom Tax, two-thirds of whom are disabled.
She added: “For decades, housing associations have been encouraged to build bigger family homes so that families settle in one home for life, creating happy and stable communities. Now the housing policy has changed and those same people are being penalised. It is desperately unfair.”
Meanwhile, Jane Vernon, who is visually impaired and has mental health issues, is facing eviction because of another aspect of housing reform, the cap on housing benefit which does not take account of disability-related costs like gardens for assistance dogs and step-free access for wheelchair users.
The owner of the property she occupies no longer wants to rent to a housing association because he can make more money in the private market.
“Since November, I have only seen two places that fall within the £220 which is what the council is prepared to pay a week. One of them was 20 minutes away from public transport involving a walk that I wouldn’t have felt safe doing at night. The other one had 12 steps going up to the front door and they were the sort of steps that have a very low edge on either side and no rail.”
It’s important for her to remain in the area of London she is in because she says that the chances of securing support or mobility training from a local authority elsewhere are minimal due to local government cutbacks.
She added: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I was promised that this wasn’t going to happen but all I can see is that I’m going to end up in bed and breakfast. I can’t say that I could cope with that, my consultant regards me as a high suicide risk.”
*Some names have been changed