Stephen Chapman, Riverside’s Community Engagement Project Manager, explains the impact the Benefit Cap is having on tenants.
As anyone working in housing knows, changes to the welfare system have come thick and fast in recent years. Now the £20,000-a-year Benefit Cap has been rolled out nationwide, we know that around 250 Riverside customers are affected so far.
For a long time, Riverside has offered a variety of support to customers to help them sustain their tenancies and remain in their homes when times are tough. Our team of dedicated money advisors operates across the country, offering comprehensive advice and assistance to those people affected by welfare reform.
Before and during the roll out of the Cap, we have offered those affected a full benefits check. We look at their circumstances to identify whether they could potentially be exempt from it, such as checking if anyone in the household is disabled, or is a full-time carer and not claiming relevant benefits.
If they aren’t exempt, we help customers in other ways, such as applying for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). Local authority DHP budgets are already under pressure from reforms such as the bedroom tax, with some areas putting further restrictions on applications.
As we know, DHPs are only a short-term fix. They’re often limited to only a few months per award before the customer has to re-apply again, with increasing uncertainty about whether their application will be successful, and they need to show they are looking for cheaper or smaller accommodation so rent is more affordable.
The Benefit Cap will place further strain on those it affects, often larger households, particularly those with three or more children. The worst case scenario is that it puts their tenancy at risk and, potentially, they lose their home. If they have lived there for a long time, that could mean moving away from a community they know, family and friends, and children having to move schools and away from other support networks.
Our priority is to help by offering advice, examining what benefits they may be entitled to, helping them to apply for DHP, or to sign up for one-to-one advice from our employment and training officers. We have a dedicated team on hand to guide and support customers who want to improve their employability, and take steps to find work.
Alternatively, we will look to help customers move to a smaller property in their area, but this is difficult and those smaller homes are in high demand due to the bedroom tax. (For example, a family with two children aged under 10 are expected to share a room under bedroom tax rules.)
Housing associations are working hard to support customers affected by the Benefit Cap… and it’s not as clear-cut as some of the media stereotypes might have us believe.
For example, John* and his family in Liverpool, who have been Riverside customers for six years, were helped by our money advice team. He came out of work after becoming ill with a long-term health condition. His partner is the main carer for John and their four children, but she still works part-time hours. John, meanwhile, had worked full-time but has was unable to carry on due to his chronic illness, worsening mental health, and mobility issues.
Our money advisor carried out a full benefits check and identified that John could be entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), while his partner could be entitled to Carer’s Allowance. Both claims were successfully awarded, exempting them from the new Benefit Cap. This help has meant their tenancy hasn’t been put at serious risk, and their already stretched family finances have avoided further strain. We have also advised the family about how to reduce their energy bills, and signposted John and his partner to specialist support to deal with mounting debts.
So what is the wider impact of the Benefit Cap likely to be? We’ve analysed a sample of 120 rent accounts for tenants in Liverpool and Carlisle affected by it and, on average, tenants have seen a £57 reduction in Housing Benefit per week – that’s a big dent in their weekly finances, and even greater in London.
This shows the significant impact the Cap is now having. If people are already under pressure with increased debts, this latest reform may tip them over the edge, but we’ll be there to offer whatever support we can.
For more information on the support Riverside provides, you can visit our Money Advice pages.
*Name changed to protect customer identity
This blog was first published by Inside Housing on 26 January 2017