The Bedroom Tax investigated in Birmingham: no place to go

Sharing a room with her four year old disabled son, Brenda*, a single mother from Ladywood, is just one of the 37,000 households in Birmingham living in congested conditions, making the West Midlands responsible for almost half of families living in overcrowded accommodation across the country.

With an increasing demand for properties and an acute shortage of social housing, the idea of taxing council tenants who maintain a spare room seems reasonable, but a closer investigation into the matter by a team of Birmingham journalists reveals that this taxation may not only be affecting society’s most vulnerable but also adding to a worsening housing situation.

John Cotton, Labour councillor and cabinet member for social cohesion and equalities in Birmingham regards the policy as “flawed”. As he told Enya Quin-Jarvis in a video interview:

“The bedroom tax has been foisted on us by the central government who clearly do not understand the full implications of their own policies.

“This is exactly what happens when government makes policy to chase headlines, rather than to deal with the actual issue…they are avoiding the thorny issues around welfare reform.”

David Barrie, Conservative Councillor for Social Cohesion and Community Safety in Birmingham, however, believes the Bedroom Tax is in the interests of the tax payer,

“As a hard working tax payer would you be happy to pay for someone else to live in expensive housing that you could not afford?”

What is the Bedroom Tax?

The under occupancy sanction, more commonly known as the ‘bedroom tax’, takes effect on April 1st 2013, as part of a larger reform of the benefit system.

The policy is an attempt by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to encourage households to downsize if they have spare rooms, freeing up properties for larger families. This will see social housing tenants pay for maintaining a ‘spare’ bedroom.

The taxation on the spare bedroom relies upon the number of spare bedrooms and the price of the property rental. According to the government’s impact assessment report the estimated average loss in benefits will be £14 a week.

However, what is deemed as a spare bedroom has become a controversial issue, as many believe the guidelines to be unfair and discriminatory.

With 10,000 council tenants estimated to be affected in Birmingham, 1 in 5 of which works full time, and a further 5,000 tenants from registered landlords, the West Midlands will make up 9% of Great Britain’s affected claimants. When carers, children, spouses and others are included it is estimated that around 60,000 people will be affected in total.

The government have highlighted the terms and conditions of the sharing requirements which gives disabled tenants needing a non-resident overnight carer the right to an extra room. Children under the age of 16 of the same gender and children under 10 years of age, regardless of gender, are expected to share.

This means that those not complying with the new guidelines may be unknowingly maintaining a spare bedroom – a spare room needed by individuals such as Brenda.

But what about those who are in need of that extra bedroom but are no longer entitled?

One woman who is finding coming to terms with the policy difficult is a 59 year old scoliosis sufferer who after living in social housing within Birmingham for the past 31 years feels devastated at having to relocate from her family home.

“This is my home, my safe place. Words cannot express how upset I am and how this decision is affecting my illnesses.”

The affect on foster carers

UK charity The Fostering Network have revealed the strain the Bedroom Tax is placing on foster carers as the policy originally failed to acknowledge the occupation of a room for a foster child, leaving carers vulnerable to the ‘spare’ bedroom tax.

A spokesperson for The Fostering Network said:

“These changes are causing some foster carers considerable anxiety and to wonder if they will be able to continue to foster.”

According to Birmingham City Council approximately 2,000 children are in care within the city with 60% in foster care, housed across a number of in-house homes and private sector accommodation.

Emma, a Birmingham based foster carer said,

“My local authority required me to have a ‘spare room’ before I could even be considered for fostering. Now that very same authority wants to penalise me for having a ‘spare room’, even though it is not spare as there is a child in it! To me this makes no sense and is in fact very unjust.”

Since these concerns were raised, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has introduced new regulations (PDF) surrounding the policy, saying that he aimed to support “priority groups” and giving concessions both to foster families and members of the armed forces.

Other groups, however, such as separated families and people with disabilities, still face an uncertain situation, while it has emerged that foster carers with more than one spare bedroom, or looking after more than one child, will still be charged.

The affect on people with disabilities

According to UK charity Scope, out of the 660,000 people estimated to be affected by the Bedroom Tax in Britain, 420,000 have disabilities. Scope says there a large number of individual cases with specialist needs who need a spare room for medical equipment or for when a carer stays, whilst some are simply too sick to move house and downsize.

Amisha Koria, Senior Media and PR Officer for the charity, expressed her concerns about the effects the Bedroom Tax will have on disabled people:

“Many families of disabled people tell us they are struggling to make ends meet. Multiple cuts to their benefits and services they rely upon have made things worse. Many have lost thousands of pounds in vital financial support.”

Father of three Richard Gorry appealed against the policy arguing the policy discriminated against the disabled as his two children were unable to share bedrooms due to their disabilities. Iain Duncan Smith has since gone on to highlight that those in circumstances like Richard Gorry, whose children are severely disabled, will not lose part of their housing benefit. Disabled adults unable to share a bedroom with their partner, however, are not exempt.

Limited housing stock

Whether the bedroom tax will improve the social housing shortage within Birmingham is questionable. George Marshall, a research systems officer at the National Housing Federation, feels the housing crisis will make downsizing difficult for tenants affected by the new charges, as the need for two bedroom houses and single person flats faces limited stock.

Birmingham maintains the second largest housing waiting list within the West Midlands, with 16,629 people currently on the list. And many private landlords are reluctant to take tenants from the social housing sector: research by housing charity Crisis found that just 1.9% of rental properties in Birmingham were available to single people on housing benefits.

A spokesperson from Andrews Estate Agents in Great Barr explained:

“We don’t accept people receiving housing benefits. It’s our policy because the DSS department will only correspond with the tenant, not the landlord or letting agency meaning that if the tenant forgets to pay, we have no way of gaining access to the money.”

In their housing strategy published in November 2011 both Nick Clegg and David Cameron outlined the importance of building quality new homes to support future generations,

“One of the most important things each generation can do for the next is to build high quality homes that will stand the test of time.”

However, the National Housing Federation’s 2012 Home Truths report argues that there is an urgent need for the construction of new build houses within the West Midlands. Chief Executive of the Federation David Orr points out that although 390,000 new houses were built in the UK in 2011 only 110,000 were built in 2012.

“One of the biggest constraints on growth is when businesses can’t expand because there are no homes for the people they want to employ.”

In an attempt to handle the housing crisis and frame a response to welfare reform in Birmingham, partnerships and campaigns such as ‘Yes to Homes’ and ‘WMBUS have been established within the region.

Yes to Homes aims to create more land for house building and therefore more homes for the people who are suffering from overcrowded conditions. The campaign recently found available land in Birmingham equivalent to two cities the size of Wolverhampton.

John Pierce, the Campaigns Officer for ‘Yes to Homes’ feels the project will be a more suitable solution than the enforcement of the Bedroom Tax,

“The answer is not to force families out of homes, where they have lived for years… but to build more affordable decent homes quickly.”

Councillor John Cotton agrees, arguing that the problem is one that only funding from central government can solve:

“We know what the issue is, we know what the solution is, but we need the resources.”

What’s being done?

In an attempt to support tenants and those expected to be affected by the Bedroom Tax,  Birmingham City Council are setting up a multi-agency community with advice agencies, councils and housing associations, where food banks, advice, financial support with the help of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, and support for social housing tenants can be accessed.

The bedroom tax comes into force on April 1.

*Not her real name