Falling levels of housing support are putting a small but significant proportion of households in Leicester at risk of serious hardship with little or no prospect of an improvement in circumstances in the near future.
There is little doubt that life has become more and more difficult for many households over the past few years. The consequences of rising prices, stagnating wages and shrinking state support are being felt up and down the country. Many households find themselves in a worse position than in 2008 before the economic crisis and government cuts started to bite. Some groups have fared particularly badly and face a significant and growing risk of having incomes that do not provide enough to reach an acceptable standard of living.
At a national level, our work tells us that single adults, lone parents and families with children are most at risk of low income, but that single people under 35 and households in private rented accommodation are the most likely to be deep in poverty. Behind these broad general trends, showing a progressive and steady deterioration for large parts of the population, there will be some groups whose pain is much sharper and deeper.
We can see this in work we’re now doing looking at the local situation in large cities. We have just published the first local report – based on analysis of open and local level data – undertaken for Leicester City Council. It shows how particular categories of deprivation are distributed differently across the city. For example, in some areas, low income is associated most clearly with families on estates; in others there are large swathes of single people, particularly young adults, on extremely low disposable incomes.
A particular issue illustrated clearly by the local level data is extent to which housing benefit is falling short in covering housing costs for low income households. The changing nature of housing support creates very difficult circumstances for a relatively small but significant proportion of households. Recent years have seen a systematic undermining of state support to meet housing costs – exacerbated by a diminishing stock of social housing – through strict limits on the levels of private rent the state is willing to support through benefits and the introduction of what has become known as the ‘bedroom’ tax.
Looking at local housing benefit data for Leicester tells us a great deal that is of interest. More than a quarter of households (28 per cent) in the city require housing benefit, compared to just less than a fifth in England overall. Of these, two-thirds are in social housing. And of households in social housing 13 per cent pay the bedroom tax, having to find £13.58 on average each week to cover the gap between housing benefit and rent.
Nearly 40 per cent of all working age housing benefit claimants in Leicester are in the private rented sector. More than half of all housing benefit claimants in the private rented sector – including pensioners – have a shortfall each week because their actual rents are higher than the level eligible for housing benefit. Private renters with a shortfall are on average having to find £21.71 each week – more than £1100 each year – to cover the gap.
What this all means is that 6 per cent of all households in Leicester have a gap between their housing costs and housing benefit because of the bedroom tax or limits on rent in the private sector. In some wards in the city, nearly one in ten households have a gap. These are the households that are far more likely to have to cut back in other areas to meet their housing costs, that are more likely to find themselves well below what the public think is needed in order to have an acceptable standard of living, that are likely to sacrifice what many of us take for granted simply to afford somewhere to live.
This is not a situation that is unique to Leicester, but what our work with local level data in the city has shown is that meeting the costs of housing, especially in the private rented sector, poses a considerable challenge for a sizeable number of households. There is some support available through locally administered discretionary housing payments, but this fund is very limited and there is a significant risk – as our national level work emphasises – that those in rented accommodation are going to find it more and more difficult to reach the standard of living considered socially acceptable by the public.