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How the bedroom tax unfolds: the letters and home visits people are getting

This is our latest bedroom tax post.

We're talking to people who have been told they must pay the bedroom tax and we're following their stories, to see how this frightening tax unfolds.

There's no doubt that people are already being pressured already to pay up. We've seen a number of letters that people have been sent by their housing associations and there's no mistaking their intent (here's one posted online). People are being told they must pay.

The problem is, of course, that they're struggling to. They were always going to struggle. Some people we've spoken to are on benefits and must not only pay the bedroom tax, but other new costs like council tax (which was previously covered by council tax benefit). One man we spoke to in Liverpool in March had been told he must pay bedroom tax on his two “spare” rooms out of his jobseekers' allowance.

So, we're ringing housing associations for details of their procedures for handling arrears and the action they plan to take if and when people struggle to pay this extra money. Will they ultimately look to evict if people find themselves permanently in arrears because of the bedroom tax? What will happen to people who just can't pay? Housing associations are telling us that they “may not agree with the changes being imposed on our communities and ourselves” - but they're still ringing people and going round to their houses and sending out letters to demand the tax. The HAs we've spoken to so far haven't ruled eviction out, either. And let's face it – that's the bottom line. Will people ultimately find themselves homeless because of this thing?

That's what tenants want to know.

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So we look now to south Liverpool – where we heard last week that South Liverpool Housing group officers (apparently in the company of the police – we've asked SLH for a comment/explanation on that - update Tuesday 7 May: SLH came back and said the accompanying officer was a community support officer) had delivered “Pay Up Now” bedroom tax letters to houses door to door.

One tenant told us*:

“I'd seen the usual group of South Liverpool Housing employees wandering round the street earlier with a police officer and had assumed that there was some neighbourhood problem. I went to take a shower and when I came back downstairs, a letter [we've seen a copy] had been pushed through my door.”

The message in the letter (which was on SLG letterhead) was clear. There was nothing ambiguous in it. People were being told that they were on the radar and must pay:

“We have been notified by the Liverpool City Council housing benefit team that your household is one of those who are affected by the bedroom tax. From 1 April 2013, your housing benefit will reduce and you will be expected to make the shortfall in payments onto your rent account.

“We note from our records that you have failed to make any payments towards the bedroom tax. It is important that you contact us immediately to make payment arrangements. We have tried to visit you today to discuss this with you in more detail and to provide you with some options to consider. Please contact us to discuss the impact of the bedroom tax on your household or to arrange a suitable appointment.”

So.

We rang SLH to find out more about this letter.

SLH was at pains to explain that last week's home visits were nothing unusual – that the Pay Your Bedroom Tax Now letter-drop merely coincided with a regular community meet-and-greet exercise that SLH calls.... “Walkabout Wednesdays.” That's one interpretation of last week's event. Another interpretation – it's certainly one that went through the minds of our tenant contacts (and our minds, for that matter) -  is that tenants are being doorstepped for this bedroom tax money, a mere month after the tax was introduced. A demand for money is a demand for money, whether or not it is delivered on Walkabout Wednesday. People are very concerned that they will lose their housing over this tax. They're certainly not confident that they'll keep their homes.

And as we say – there is reason to worry here. SLH did not rule “bedroom tax arrears” evictions out when we asked. They described eviction to us as “an absolute last resort” and "something we do very rarely" but also said that “we have a clear duty to all tenants to collect rent so that we can continue to provide vital services." SLH says that it has identified over 500 tenants who are affected by the tax and that is is "doing everything we can to support those tenants.” The part we're struggling to clarify is exactly how that “everything we can” will play when it comes to people who simply can't find the money to pay, or who can't afford to pay their other bills once they've paid the bedroom tax. We've spoken to people who've applied for and/or been awarded a discretionary housing payment, but they'll only get that for a limited time.

SLH says these are tenants' options:

Option 1) Moving. For SLH tenants, that means several things. One is volunteering to move and registering on the ‘Home Swapper’ database to look for smaller homes and so on. SLH told us that it is working with other providers to try to find places for tenants across Merseyside. As we say, SLH has identified more than 500 tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax. SLH says 32 want to move (which isn't many out of 500). Most of those people “qualify” for two-bedroom properties. SLH said that it had 540 one-bedroom homes and that “a healthy supply of this type of accommodation becomes empty annually.”

We found the “healthy supply” response interesting: at south Liverpool bedroom tax protest meetings we attended in March, tenants (who rented from a range of Liverpool housing associations, including SLH) said they'd been told that one-bedroom flats were scarce all over and they'd have to leave the area if they wanted to downsize. “I applied for a one-bedroom house and I was told there is no one-bedroom houses, or flats, in the whole of Liverpool,” one older woman said at a Garston meeting. “So, if I want to get to a smaller property, I’d have to go out of Liverpool. But all my family live in Liverpool – so where would that leave me? I don’t drive – so where would that leave people like me?” Other stories suggest that there is a shortage of available homes in parts of Liverpool. One man - we referred to him earlier in this post - who had two spare bedrooms (he'd lived in the same house all of his life and continued to live there after his mother had died) said he'd been told he could downsize to a two-bedroom home and then a one-bedroom home if such a property became available. He wasn't an SLH tenant - he rented from another housing association. We need more clarity on this: the number of homes that are available and who is eligible for them across the area.

That hardly helps people who don't want to move, though. Which bring us to:

Option 2) Paying the tax. If people don't want to move (and nobody we've spoken to in Liverpool wants to move, for many good reasons - they've lived in their homes for many years, are near family members who rely on them, etc) then SLH says it “will work with people to provide budgeting and money guidance.” The question is again when it comes down to it - what will this guidance mean for people who have no money if this tax is enforced? Will people be told to pay their rent at all costs and then to go to foodbanks and charities for help with all their other costs? Exactly how will this work?

Anyway. The impression you get from the letter delivered to tenants last week is that the ante is being upped, fast.

If only the government pursued banking sector reform as vigorously.

SLH will send us more responses to our questions this week.

Update Tuesday 7 May with more responses:

SLH took issue with our description of the letter as a Pay Up Now letter. We disputed that and will leave the description as it is. As far as tenants were concerned, they had been delivered a letter one month after the start of the bedroom tax which told them they owed money and must contact SLH immediately to make payment arrangements. Tenants are perfectly entitled to view such as letter as a demand for money and to express concern about it. We won't be watering their views down. People have a real grievance and concern here and that is a perception that needs to be taken note of. They are not being reassured. How can anyone who is being told they must pay this tax be reassured? How can anyone who gets these letters through their doors possibly be reassured by them?

SLH said: the Walkabout Wednesday last week "presented a good opportunity to talk to those affected by bed tax who had not paid any amount on the their rent account since 1 April. It was one of many touch points we are using to talk to those affected by under occupation and other benefits under welfare reform. We have done and will continue to talk to affected customers to identify ways we can help them overcome issues that welfare reform is presenting to them." SLH said it wanted to advise people to get in touch to arrange budgeting and payment before people got into arrears.

More soon.

*We're not naming tenants that we're speaking to in Liverpool. This is because SLH asked us to name the tenants we're speaking to. We're not sure why they would need that information.

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