The working renters whose homes are 'at risk'

Penny and Rich Baker

Penny and Rich Baker, who live near Bristol, have decided they have no choice but to move to a smaller house.

Although Penny has a part-time job with a charity, her husband Rich has been struggling to find work as a chef.

Their rent, at £900 a month, has become unaffordable.

But much to their surprise, they have found that they are not entitled to Housing Benefit payments, which might have helped them stay in their four-bedroom home.

"We've been thinking of going to a small one-bedroom flat. That's what we'd have to move in to," says Penny.

Now it's being claimed that millions of working renters could find themselves in a similar position.

A report out this week warned there are large gaps in the Housing Benefit safety net - leaving the majority of Britain's 7.7 million renters at risk of losing their homes, should their income drop significantly.

Vulnerable groups

More than five million working adults would not qualify for full Housing Benefit if they lost their job, according to the report by Royal London insurance.

The benefit is also known as Local Housing Allowance (LHA) for those renting in the private sector.

The report identifies four groups who are particularly vulnerable:

  • Couples who rent together. If one half of the couple loses a job, the income of the other might severely reduce their entitlement
  • Singles under 35 who rent privately. LHA for such people only covers the cost of renting a room in a shared house
  • People with "spare" bedrooms. Housing Benefit is calculated on the basis of how many bedrooms you need, with young children having to share
  • People living in expensive areas. Levels of Housing Benefit reflect the lowest costs in an area, not the highest

"Unless they are able to resume paid work quickly, 5.5 million working renters would be at risk of not being able to pay the rent, and having to move to cheaper accommodation," said Steve Webb, director of policy at Royal London, and a former pensions minister.

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Penny and Rich fit into three of the "at risk" groups above.

Penny's part-time income counts against them when it comes to their entitlement.

They have three grown-up children who are no longer living at home, so they are classed as having three spare bedrooms. Again this reduces their entitlement.

And they rent in a relatively expensive area. Their Housing Benefit is worked out on the basis of the cheapest rents in Bristol. So they lose out further.

Only this week a committee of MPs urged the government to ensure that Housing Benefit "more closely reflects market rents".

"We're not trying to scrounge the system," says Penny.

"Nevertheless it would be nice to feel that because we've paid into the system, we could have some support back when we're going through difficult times.

"A lot of other people are in the same situation."

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Shelter: Many families could not pay a month's rent if they lost their job

Discretionary payments

In response, the government said it was doing all it could to protect those who need help.

"We continue to spend around £90bn a year on working age benefits, including unemployment and sickness benefits, to ensure a strong safety net for the most vulnerable," said a spokesperson for the Department of Communities and Local Government.

It said it was also working to produce a bigger private rented sector, including homes provided by companies.

Lee Healey, the managing director of IncomeMAX, advises people experiencing a shortfall in Housing Benefit to apply for so-called Discretionary Housing Payments.

These are financed by the government, which has given local authorities extra cash to mitigate the impact of benefit changes, such as the spare room subsidy and Universal Credit.

"There is a system of Discretionary Housing Payments available to vulnerable renters, but there is no guaranteed entitlement to them, and you have to apply," he says.

"Despite the pitfalls, it is still extremely important to apply for Housing Benefit - or the rent element of Universal Credit - and Discretionary Housing Payments if you need help with your rent."