I have just got home from knocking on doors on a small Thornaby estate and am so angry that I felt I had to write an immediate article.
I met a woman tonight who is 48 years old, out of work and living on £71 per week benefits. She lives in a nice two bedroom flat on the first floor of a small block in a well maintained scheme.
She told me that she received a letter in August 2012 from her social landlord (who I won’t name), advising her that she would be subject to the bedroom tax from April 2013 as she is deemed to be under-occupying.
It makes me very angry that we cannot allow people one extra bedroom as a matter of course, if they want one, so they can have friends and family to stay or take up their hobby or use it as a home office or indeed for whatever reason they want, but that is the subject of another article for another day.
She said that she had thought about her situation for a week or so and decided that she simply would never be able to sustain a £12 per week commitment to her rent out of her small income so had reluctantly decided to seek smaller accommodation. She applied to go on the housing waiting list and was accepted and then she started looking for and bidding for one bedroom properties elsewhere in Thornaby. Despite applying for lots of properties, she found herself repeatedly down the list of those applying and by the time the bedroom tax was introduced in April 2013 she had still not been accepted for anywhere.
It is now October 2013 and she has just been informed that she has finally arrived at the top of the list for a one-bedroom home on the estate across the road from where she currently lives. It is in an area with more problems, not as nice as where she is, but she was looking forward to making the move and making the best of her new circumstances.
This should be a story with a happy ending really.
But unfortunately it is not. This Thornaby resident has been unable to pay the £12 per week since April and is now in arrears by approximately £300. And there is a universal rule within social housing that if you are in arrears you will not be accepted for a move.
I can feel myself getting very angry again as I explain this situation to you.
Because of the bedroom tax this woman is obliged to leave a home where she has been happy and a good tenant who has maintained her tenancy well.
Because of the bedroom tax this woman with no history of arrears has now built up arrears of £300 – a sum which will go on rising by £50 every month.
Because the bedroom tax is regressive and retrospective and came with no real warning, there is an insufficiency of smaller properties and competition for them is huge, meaning long waits before anything suitable arises.
And because of the bedroom tax this woman won’t be able to move anyway but is now trapped in a cycle of despair.
I will of course be writing to the leader of the Council, the Cabinet member for Housing and the Chairman of the relevant Scrutiny committee to ask that they have a look at their housing allocation policy and reflect upon this urgent problem.
It doesn’t stop there though. This Thornaby resident said two other things to me tonight which I found both shocking and disturbing and I want to share them with you too.
The first thing was that the Housing Officer from her social landlord advised her to take out a Provy loan to pay the arrears off. Now there’s bad advice and there’s astoundingly bad advice: with interest rates at 400% for the Provident (and 5853% for the nation’s most promoted, Wonga), and with no income surplus to pay a lender any more she can pay £12 per week rent, I will leave you to decide which type of advice this is. But if I ever discover who it was that thinks this is the way to demonstrate that you have your tenant at the heart of everything you do, I will be encouraging their Housing Association Board to throw the book at them.
And the other thing that really upset and angered me was when she asked me in a worried tone if I knew how much arrears a person needed to be in before they faced eviction. I really felt for her in her anxiety and can’t imagine what it must be like to live with such daily uncertainty but I know where to point the finger of blame.
Yes the Liberal Democrats are complicit in their support for this vile and pernicious benefit cut, but they would never have dreamed this up on their own. Indeed many Liberal Democrats sit on Housing Association boards themselves and recognise privately this is grossly unfair. They would never have dreamed up something as damaging as this, even though their support for it is a betrayal of everything they stand for. This policy comes straight from the black hearts of the Tory Party.
James Wharton MP for Stockton South – and therefore Thornaby – was on the radio with me a few weeks ago defending this Tory policy. He said that it was not as bad it had been suggested it would be in our constituency and that he was not seeing many cases in his surgeries. He also suggested that although I was honest and passionate about my support for tenants in a predicament, this was largely due to my being a Liverpool councillor where the situation was very different.
How wrong could he be?
Three weeks ago I intervened in the case of a woman who has lost 1 stone in weight since April (a slender woman I should say) because she has not been able to afford to eat regularly. She lives in Thornaby.
Two weeks ago I was supporting a woman who is forced to sleep on the sofa due to her disability and cannot get a new home because the adapted bungalows she wants to move to which would suit her needs are only available to the over 60s and she is 54. She lives in Thornaby.
Last week I visited a couple who were struggling to find £12 per week to meet their bedroom tax, the woman has diabetes and has seen her blood sugar levels spike because they are now buying cheap food with high sugar levels. I was able to secure Discretionary Housing Fund payments for them that they did not know they were entitled to. They live in Thornaby.
And now tonight I have found this woman in a catch 22 situation.
I found these residents simply by knocking on doors. They didn’t come to me; I more or less stumbled over them.
So when James Wharton MP tells you that he is not getting many cases and the situation is not as bad as was feared, I say to him, you want to get out more!