Newcastle City Council is considering “re-designating” whole tower blocks of two-bedroom flats as one-bedroom properties – because tenants can’t afford to pay the bedroom tax.
Two thirds of council housing tenants are currently behind on their rent, double the number before the bedroom tax was introduced.
And the authority is in the process of evicting 139 families – although it insists it is also trying to help them stay in their homes.
The impact of the bedroom tax on families across the city was revealed by Coun Joyce McCarty, deputy leader of Newcastle City Council, when she spoke to MPs. Coun McCarty was giving evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which is holding an inquiry into how changes to the welfare system have affected housing.
New rules introduced by the Government mean housing benefit is cut for claimants in social housing who are considered to have a spare room. The policy has been dubbed a ‘bedroom tax’ by critics, while ministers say they are ending a ‘spare-room subsidy’.
Coun McCarty said 5,500 households in the city were hit by the policy. And others who weren’t currently affected were desperate to avoid it, even if that meant turning down the offer of a two-bedroom property.
She told MPs: “Because previously people wanted space, we actually pulled down one bedroom flats not that long ago. We are thinking of re-designating complete tower blocks of two bedroom flats as one bedroom flats, because people can’t afford them.”
This would allow tenants to avoid having their housing benefit cut, but it would also mean the council lost money, she said.
“The impact of doing that is huge because that’s a loss of rental income as well.” She added: “We’ve got lots [of properties] that people don’t want to move in to . . . couples and individuals don’t want to move in to there because they know they’d have to pay additional costs.”
Newcastle had been particularly affected by the change to housing benefit because 23% of residents live in social housing, compared to a national average of just10%, she said.
Your Homes Newcastle, who manage council homes on behalf of the council, visited tenants to make sure they were claiming everything they were entitled to.
“At the moment 66% of our tenants are in arrears, which is double what it would have been before April, so that can be allocated to be the bedroom tax,” Coun McCarty added. “There are about 139 currently pending facing eviction since the bedroom tax was introduced.”
But the council was working with all the tenants involved to try to keep them in their homes, she said. In theory, tenants could move into smaller properties. However, those properties were not available.
“We have 3,500 people wanting to have one bedroom properties now, but each year we probably have 800 free so it will take us several years to reallocate those people.”
Your Homes Newcastle said it was considering re-designating a further 1,200 properties, but could not specify which blocks. Neil Scott, director of tenancy services said: “Newcastle has an unusually large proportion of accommodation in high rise properties. We currently manage 44 blocks over six storeys. The vast majority of properties in these blocks are two bedroom. We have 2,594 two bedroom flats in high rise properties, and 80 of those are available for let.”