August 7, 2023
We are honoured to have partnered with the Orwell Foundation in presenting the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness. Throughout the last half-year, we invited submissions from individuals with lived experiences of homelessness and journalists dedicated to shedding light on this pressing issue and its possible solutions. Today, we are delighted to feature a piece submitted by one of our shortlisted applicants, Daniel Hewitt. This piece was originally published by ITV News in November 2022.
Almost one million people are facing eviction this winter, new Shelter data shared exclusively with ITV News shows.
It is an alarming statistic, and having spoken to tenants, landlords and charities, I want to focus on one group in particular.
Despite rising rents and living costs, the government’s decision to not increase local housing allowance rates is making life even harder for the 1.2 million private renters in England who rely on housing benefit to help with their rent.
Well let’s start with what Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates are. LHA is used to calculate the maximum amount people renting from a private landlord can claim in Housing Benefit or Universal Credit, to help them pay their rent. This maximum rent is based on where you live - as well as the number of bedrooms you need and the amount of rent you pay.
LHA rates are set annually and based broadly on how much rents are in any given area. So, for instance, in Barnsley, a private renter who qualifies for housing benefit receives £92.05 towards their rent, per week, for a two bedroom property. In the city of Westminster, it’s £365.92 per week for a two bedroom property.
That’s LHA. The problem is LHA rates have been frozen for three years to March 2024, despite rents going up across the country. It means as private landlords ask tenants for more (and in some cases hundreds of pounds more per month), tenants housing benefit isn’t going up with it, creating a shortfall at a time when their energy, food and fuel bills have all gone up as well.
The government is offering a 2020 solution for a 2023 problem.
This impacts a lot of people. According to the Department for Work and Pensions own figures, 1.2 million households in England receive housing benefit to help pay their rent. That is one in four private renters.
Research by Crisis and Zoopla earlier this year showed between May 2021 and April 2022, 88% of one to three bedroom rental properties were unaffordable for people receiving housing support.
Those who cannot make up that shortfall are falling into rent arrears, and are at risk of being evicted.
New data from Shelter, shared exclusively with us, shows last month 482,000 private renters were behind on their rent. Landlords, remember, can legally evict tenants who owe at least two months rent.
In fact, the same Shelter survey shows 504,000 people have either received or been threatened with eviction in the last month.
The eviction notice through the door is just the beginning of an increasingly painful and petrifying process.
Tenants who need to find somewhere else to live increasingly can’t. For most, private rents have gone up considerably since they last had to look, but their LHA hasn’t kept up. In other words, their housing benefit doesn’t cover the rent, and they haven’t got the money to make up the difference.
This is without the added barrier some benefit claimants still face of some private landlords not wanting to take them on as tenants, or the barriers placed in their way by letting agents who are currently, in some cases, insisting on three or even six months rent up front for a deposit.
Then there’s the lack of properties causing increased competition and cost.
I met up with Paul Shamplina this week, founder of Landlord Action, which represents and advises landlords and letting agents. One of the services he offers is delivering Section 21 or no-fault eviction notices on behalf of landlords who want their property back, and I went with him as he delivered some.
He says 60% of the time it’s down to rent arrears, a problem made much worse during the pandemic when landlords couldn’t evict tenants for six months.
More and more landlords are selling up and getting out, he tells me. In the 22 years he’s been working with landlords, he says he’s never known so many sell-up at once.
There’s a number of factors driving it he argues: some due to the pandemic, unable to recoup costs; extra regulation on the horizon with the Renters Reform bill; others because their costs are going up - mortgage interest rates, energy bills and reduced tax relief.
Whatever the reason, Paul says shrinking supply is pushing up rental prices and squeezes out the poorest tenants.
“I had one landlord last week with 35 people wanting one property,” he tells me.
“That creates a bidding war, and those with the least and those on housing benefit lose out.”
In Woking, David has rented his small, one-bed house for almost four years. His 16-year-old son has the only bedroom, and David sleeps on a sofa bed in the lounge, where he shows me the eviction notice he received from the landlord in July.
He’s not in rent arrears and has never had an issue with the landlord. They just want their property back, and currently the law allows them do to that with whether David likes it or not (the government is proposing to change that by abolishing Section 21, or no-fault evictions).
Paul has been looking for a new place to live for him and his son for four months, but cannot find anything he can afford. He receives housing benefit, but the local LHA rate is much lower than the price of rent on every place available in the local area.
He’s notified the council, who will add him to the waiting list for a two-bedroom property once his eviction is confirmed. A chronic shortage of social housing nationally, however, means a property could take months or even years to materialise. Paul has been told he doesn’t qualify for a one-bedroom property because he needs two bedrooms, despite the fact he’s slept on a sofa bed for nearly four years, and would much rather continue to do that than be homeless.
In Torquay, Fiona and her two daughters were evicted 12 months ago, and they still cannot find a rental property they can afford. They’ve been living in a one bedroom, temporary hostel since being forced to leave their three-bedroom house. The council currently have no permanent properties for them.
That Shelter data I mentioned unsurprisingly finds more than two-thirds (69%) of private renters would struggle to find a new place to live if they were evicted this winter.
At the charity’s call centre in Sheffield, they invite me to confidentially listen to some of the 1,000 calls they get a day from private renters needing help and advice.
I hear the same call coming in over and over: "I’m being evicted by my landlord, and I can’t find anywhere else to go". It is clear the prospect of being homeless is real for more and more people.
Local councils, so often the last refuge for those cast aside by the private market, simply cannot cope with the amount of people coming to them, with over one million households already on the waiting list for social housing in England before this current crisis.
Shelter’s message to the government is clear: unfreeze Local Housing Allowance Rates so people can afford their rent.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, said: “Almost a million private renters are at risk of being of being kicked out of their home this winter, and more will follow. Every day our emergency helpline advisers are taking gut-wrenching calls - from the mum who’s skipping meals to pay the rent to the family terrified they will be spending Christmas in a grotty homeless hostel.
“The government’s refusal to unfreeze housing benefit, when private rents are rising at record rates, means the rental crisis is fast becoming a homelessness emergency.”
A Treasury spokesperson said last week: “The LHA was increased to the 30th percentile of market rates during the Covid pandemic and it is being kept at those levels.
“Even though people may not have increases in their Local Housing Allowance, they’ll still see increases in Universal Credit, [Employment and Support Allowance] and [Employment and Support Allowance].
"All the other benefits that they may be entitled to, we also increase the national living wage and the national minimum wage.
“So people do have that sort of cost of living support that they need help with. And then we’ve also got a massive energy support package as well, with further targeted one-off payments for particularly vulnerable groups.”
Shelter however says the LHA covers the cheapest third of rents in just 3% of English local authorities.
The Chartered Institute for Housing has also said the government needs to raise the LHA to avoid a spike in homelessness.
If you are interested in learning more about tenancy insecurity in the Private Rented Sector, take a look at our policy paper Tackling tenancy insecurity in the Private Rented Sector - what works?