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Bedroom tax: what are we supposed to do?

By PJ White

| 31 January 2013

The implications of the bedroom tax are slowly seeping into wider consciousness. Even so, there are still many people who haven't a clue what is about to happen. There are families who don't know how badly hit they will be when the tax, officially known as the under-occupation penalty, starts in April.

I've been trying to figure out what the government expects people to do in response. This is important because the whole point, as well as reducing housing benefit costs for the government, is to change the behaviour of people who live in social housing.

But first a recap. The bedroom tax is a deliberate financial penalty directed at people receiving housing benefit whose homes are judged to be too large for their needs. It only applies to people in social housing and is the government's answer to the problem of "under-occupation".

Rules have been set about the right size of a home for a family, focusing on the number of bedrooms. Each person or couple in the household is allowed a bedroom. Except that:

  • children aged 15 or under will be expected to share with another child of the same gender.
  • a child aged 9 or under is expected to share with one other child aged 9 or under, regardless of gender.

Anyone of working age who is claiming housing benefit and has more than the permitted number of bedrooms will have their housing benefit reduced. They will lose 14 per cent of it if they have one spare bedroom and 25 per cent of it if they have two spare rooms. Bad news for the single mother whose twin 18-year-old sons are serving in the army.

So what is a family supposed to do? Move to a smaller house. Oh yeah? With a massive shortage of one-bedroom properties in social housing, that is not likely.

They could find somewhere in the private sector. Maybe. But with rents much higher, their housing benefit wouldn't reduce. Might even go up. So how does that help the government's plan to lower spending on housing benefit?

If they stay, they'll just have to find the extra rent from their income. Since their income is by definition low, this could be tough. Choosing between food and heat could be a serious option for families. Or rent arrears, leading ultimately to eviction and homelessness.

They can get a lodger. Is that a serious suggestion? Most definitely. Lord Freud, speaking for the government, recommends it. And new regulations will allow tenants to keep income from lodgers when universal credit comes in. But mightn't there be some problems with bringing strangers into a family home? Would the landlord consent? And what about those many areas of the country where there isn't much of a demand for lodgers?

So many questions. So few sensible answers.

PJ White is editor of youthmoney.co.uk

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