In some areas of the UK just 1% of rooms advertised for rent are affordable and available to young people claiming social security, according to research carried out by the Social Security Advisory Commitee (SSAC). Manchester was not included in the SSAC’s results so The Meteor repeated their research method and extended it to cover two more property letting websites and found a similar story: over 99% of rooms advertised in Manchester were unaffordable or unavailable to young people receiving welfare.
As the ability to buy a house or obtain a social housing tenancy escapes an ever increasing number of young people in the UK, they are becoming increasingly reliant on the Private Rented Sector (PRS) for housing. But changes to social security, government housing policy and PRS landlords failing to accept tenants claiming welfare are creating a dysfunctional housing market that is failing to stably house increasing numbers of young people. The ultimate result of this is increasing youth homelessness, with 45% of homeless agencies reporting they believed there had been an increase in young men sleeping rough, and 92% of respondents to the same survey identifying delayed Universal Credit payments as being a cause of increasing youth homelessness. The most visible kind of homelessness, rough sleeping, saw a yearly 42% increase (all ages) across Greater Manchester in 2017.
The Shared Accommodation Rate is one such change that limits the amount of Housing Benefit (or housing component of Universal Credit) single people under 35 may claim. It mainly applies to people renting a single room in a shared house from a private landlord. The SAR depends on the area you live and the price of rents there. The lowest third of market rents are used to calculate a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap, the amount of housing benefit that can be paid for a self contained home; the amount of SAR payable is then calculated as a fraction of the LHA.
For example, Manchester is covered by two SAR rates: Central Greater Manchester’s SAR is £67.20 per week (£101.98, LHA for 1 bed flat) , while Southern Greater Manchester’s SAR is £61.37 per week (£102.25, LHA for 1 bed flat).
A snapshot analysis of the rooms available for rent in Manchester on 25 April was carried out on the popular shared accommodation room-finding site spareroom.co.uk. This initially returned 1699 adverts for rooms in Manchester with no filters set. When maximum rent was set to £68/week (80p above the higher SAR rate for Manchester) the number of hits for rooms available dropped to 106, just 6% of the original total. When the results were filtered again for the number of rooms advertised that would accept Housing Benefit claimants, the hits dropped to a paltry 4, leaving just 0.2% of the original search result. Which means 99.8% of the advertised rooms in Manchester, on sparerooms.co.uk, were either unaffordable due to rents above the SAR or unavailable due to the landlord not accepting Housing Benefit recipients.
Wanting to make sure that this result wasn’t just limited to one website, a *similar method was repeated on Zoopla and Gumtree. Zoopla returned 12 hits (0.3%) in Manchester below the SAR and available to social security claimants from a total of 3700 hits, while Gumtree returned 26 adverts (2.0%) fitting the criteria from a total of 1327. Combining the totals of the results from the three seperate website combinations gave an average figure of 0.6% of accommodation adverts that were below the SAR and available to benefits claimants in Manchester.
This leaves young tenants on benefits having to use money meant for food, utility bills and other living expenses to pay the shortfall in their rent. Single young claimants on the lowest level of benefits only have £57.90 a week for living costs other than rent, which leaves little room for manoeuvre no matter how frugal you are. One young respondent to the SSAC research said:
“I have to pay £5 extra. It doesn’t sound like much, but its money I don’t have”.
Debbie Blanshard, an activist with Greater Manchester Housing Action, has experienced first hand the difficulty in finding young homeless people accommodation in Manchester. Blanshard also works with the homeless charity Lifeshare, trying to find accommodation for the many young homeless people, many of them squatting to put a roof over their head, that approach them for help.
A big problem is “the overt discrimination, the adverts you know ‘mature occupants only’ or ‘no under 25’s’, all of that stuff, but there is also the covert discrimination… They will suddenly say, when I mention their age, ‘Oh, that place has just gone’… Yet two months later the To Let sign is still outside. I get attitude, you know ‘why would we want to take them when we can take mature people with a track record’, all sorts of tricks like that.” says Blanshard.
The constant rejection places a strain both on Blanshard and the “good young people” she helps to find accommodation, she says:
“They end up so stressed and so depressed, that some are self harming, some are hardly eating. It just wears you down; you lose hope completely, and in that state how can they achieve anything else at all, education or anything.”
The second part of the double whammy of discrimination these young people face is that against social security claimants. A report by the National Landlords Association last October showed that 80% of landlords said they were reluctant to accept people receiving Housing Benefit or Universal Credit as tenants. A case brought by Shelter appeared to have set a precedent for ‘No DSS’( No Department of Social Security) signs to be unlawful in adverts for rented property because they discriminated against women on social security. But the presence of an ‘accept housing benefit filter’ on the sparerooms.co.uk website shows that discrimination is still built into the mechanism of the website. Other popular websites also still commonly display ‘No DSS’ messages in the text of their adverts. The Zoopla website was searched (23.05.18) for UK property rental adverts containing “No DSS” and returned 147,000 hits, and searching the Gumtree UK website for the same term in properties to rent returned 37,100 adverts.
The original SSAC research, published in a paper called ‘Young People Living Independently’, carried out the same analysis (on the sparerooms.co.uk website only) in the following areas: Lewisham, Bromley, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The total number of hits for all the areas was 5240, with the number of hits returned once filtered for rents below the local SAR rate and rooms willing to accept housing benefit recipients was 23, just 0.4% of the original value.
Blanshard reports that many of the young homeless people in Manchester she works with have been brought up in care. Care leavers and the extensive problems they face finding a stable home are considered in the SSAC paper. Each year 12,000 young people leave care, usually around the age of 18, with one in five ending up homeless within two years. This is despite the fact that care leavers are exempt from being reduced to the SAR level of housing benefit until they are 22: they receive the LHA rate for a one bedroom property.
Benefit sanctions and late payments of Universal Credit have been linked to increasing youth homelessness in a survey carried out by Homeless Link. But care leavers are particularly hard hit, being three times as likely to be sanctioned as their peers receiving benefits, and five times more likely than the general population of adult claimants to be sanctioned. Often these sanctions are wrongly administered, with 98% percent of challenges from all young people (under 25) living independently being overturned; unfortunately only 15% of independent living young people challenge these sanctions.
Social housing & regulation of the PRS
The housing conditions in the private rented sector are not good, with many properties not measuring up to the Decent Home Standard. The SSAC paper reports that 27% [in 2016] of private rented properties are “non-decent”, and suggest conditions are likely to be worse for the lowest cost properties the young will be able to afford. In contrast, only 2% of social housing in 2016 was classed as non-decent.
Ben Clay is a recently elected Labour councillor for Burnage, who promised during his election campaign to push for better housing conditions in Manchester. He is also a member of Tenants Union UK (TUUK)which is fighting for renters’ rights across the UK and has an active branch in Manchester. Clay says there are a lot of absentee landlords in Manchester, that many landlords have the resources to improve their properties but don’t, and that more regulation is needed in the PRS:
“We need universal landlord licensing throughout the whole of GM. In the future we would like to do things like rent controls, but that would require legislation change from a Labour Government. At a GM level we are looking at a landlord’s charter or a tenant’s charter which will be used to differentiate the good landlords from the bad landlords.” He went on to add that the TUUK were helping tenants to get “get advice and support, and we are campaigning to ensure that their voices are heard and that councils do everything in their power to enforce exisiting law and regulation, but also to campaign for change at national level”.
Currently Manchester only has selective landlord licensing which covers around 8% of Manchester. Universal Landlord Licensing would cover the whole of Manchester, forcing landlords to register and to maintain a set of mandatory standards at their properties. Clay also believes that more social housing is critical to sorting out not just youth housing, but for housing everyone who needs it, saying:
“I have stated explicitly that we need more social housing: that’s the solution to many of these problems, and for me social housing is there for everybody that needs it, not just seen to be a housing of last resort for desperate cases and the most destitute people… because originally social housing was housing that was there to improve the lives of everyone in society, and many reasonably well off working class and middle class people lived in social housing.”
Manchester landlords stand up
But until that social housing arrives, the pressure to house young people in the private rented sector can only increase. That is why Lifeshare is calling for Manchester landlords to stand up and be counted by offering tenancies to young homeless people in Manchester. Blanshard says she often deals with small groups of young people, that ideally would like to be housed together:
“We want landlords to come forward to take groups of young people, with houses, we would like two, three, four bedroom places, we desperately need them to give them a chance, on the understanding that we do not recommend anybody that is not going to be a good tenant. We are not talking spice users or anything like that. We are talking young people, who are responsible, and want a chance. The ones I have dealt with have gone on to become model tenants – I have three in M9, I have three happy landlords, they are no trouble at all.”
Providing deposits for tenancies, paying three months rent up front, and finding guarantors for tenancies is also a stumbling block for Lifeshare in finding homes for homeless youths in Manchester. They are asking for concerned businesses and individuals to donate deposits and act as guarantors. Details of how to contact Lifeshare can be found below.
Contact details for Lifeshare – click here
Tenants Union UK website – click here
Feature image: Geograph
* For Zoopla a search was carried out for all rented accommodation opportunities in Manchester, this was then filtered by setting a £75/week rent upper limit (nearest graduation to required amount) Then all hits above £68/week were manually verified, counted and removed. A key word filter for ‘No DSS’ was then carried out to determine the remaining adverts left that would not accept social security. For Gumtree a search was carried out for all rented accommodation opportunities in Manchester, this was then filtered by setting a £68week rent upper limit. The adverts containing ‘No DSS’ were then manually verified and counted.