Lime Legal

Decade of discrimination

Published 01 November 2023

The single room rent restriction is 10 years old this month. Simon Ellery investigates how a pernicious policy has blighted the lives of vulnerable young people and forced them into homelessness

William Purvis is in limbo. Like tens of thousands of people under 25, housing benefit restrictions mean he can’t afford his own home and he is forced to stay in a dirty hostel with drug users and alcoholics, or sometimes ‘sofa surfs’ at friends’ and family’s places where he can at least have a bath and some decent food. 21-year-old William is trapped in homelessness, which places an extra burden on him and makes it harder to take a college course or even get a job.

‘Without a permanent place to live my life is in chaos,’ he says. ‘I don’t eat properly, can’t bathe regularly and this makes it difficult to get a job which means I stay homeless. I’m stuck in a Catch 22.’

The cause of his suffering is the single room rent restriction, which was introduced 10 years ago this month. The measure limits housing benefit for under-25s to what you would pay in your area for a single room in shared accommodation. But as the government conducts a wholesale reform of housing benefit, ministers face unprecedented pressure to scrap it. Kicked out by his dad at 17, William has been on the housing waiting list for several years, attempted a failed move to be with his sister in London and finally returned to Newcastle. Four years later, out of work and homeless, his life remains in turmoil.

Told by Newcastle council that he was not a priority and that his best chance was to get accommodation in the private sector, he has scoured local papers, followed up cards in shop windows and asked everyone he knows about finding somewhere to live. But, under the single room rent, William is only entitled to the average local rent for shared accommodation, which is less than half of the average monthly rent needed.

‘Only three places accepted housing benefit out of loads of ads and they were £450 per month – but I can only get £180,’ he says. ‘I have been staying here, there and everywhere – at my girlfriend’s, my brother’s and, if I have to, at hostels. But it’s dirty and unhygienic with lots of drug addicts so it’s scary. I do not feel safe there and even the locks on the doors are dodgy and don’t make me feel secure.

‘It’s also causing problems with my close friends as I am more irritable and lose my temper over little things,’ says William. ‘The single room rent restriction is a massive problem because it stops me getting on with my life.’

William is not alone. Tens of thousands of under-25s face the same problems finding a home at a rent that falls within the rates offered under the restriction. Government statistics show that the number of claimants assessed under single room rent rules fell dramatically since its introduction – from 31,600 in 1997 to 11,990 in 2015. So what has happened to the thousands of young people who are no longer counted in the latest figures?

Many are forced to sofa surf and have become part of the so-called ‘hidden homeless’, others risk coming unstuck financially by topping up housing benefit with other benefits, while many more thousands have ended up in hostels.

In the worst cases, vulnerable young people are forced to live in hostels where they can be exposed to drugs, crime and further exploitation. This can set them up to ‘fail’ in future tenancies leading to repeat homelessness.

The facts on the single room rent are disturbing. A massive 87 per cent of all claimants faced a shortfall between their housing benefit and their rent averaging £35 a week. Those facing such shortfalls either make dangerous sacrifices, such as going without food, or eventually end up being evicted because of arrears and are then barred from making new homelessness applications.

Claimants aged 25 and over are assumed to need £57 per week to cover day-to-day living costs such as food, fuel and clothing, but under-25s are entitled to only £45. They are also excluded from the working tax credit.

The case for the abolition of the single room rent is overwhelming. Even when it was introduced in 1996 it was highly controversial and Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Prescott were opposed to it. At the time former shadow social security secretary Chris Smith commented: ‘The limitation of housing benefit amounts for young people under the age of 25 will have a series of malign consequences. It will force young people out of bedsits and one-bedroom flats into inadequate, unregulated and potentially dangerous multi-occupation dwellings.’

MPs from the social security committee examining housing benefit in 2000 declared that, despite having ‘an aversion’ to putting forward increases in social security spending, they were convinced that there was ‘a strong case for abolishing the single room rent limits’.

In the face of mounting criticism the government implemented minor changes that extended the single room rent definition to include access to a shared living room. But research by the Department for Work and Pensions dismissed these changes as making no appreciable difference to the supply or quality of accommodation to young claimants or ‘to their ability to access it’.

The former Tory government’s rationale for single room rent was that 60 per cent of under-25s share accommodation in the private rented sector and that it was ‘reasonable’ for young housing benefit claimants to share too. Speaking to parliament, the housing benefit minister said it would be unfair if claimants had access to better housing than their working peers.

But that argument is demolished in a briefing produced by Citizens Advice backed by a whole host of agencies that witness the problems caused by the single room rent on a daily basis.

‘Firstly the single room rent hits young people in work as well as their out-of-work peers. It cannot therefore be seen as an incentive to work and in practice makes it more difficult to find and sustain employment,’ the report says.

Family values: Antuan works but can't afford to rent a flat because of the single room rent. 'These ridiculous rules are separating me from my three-year-old child,' he says

Citizens Advice also says that the housing benefit system already includes a mechanism to restrict rents to the average of the area, and questions why an additional restriction is needed. More importantly the briefing points out that the single room rent has not been effective in encouraging claimants into shared accommodation.

National charity Centrepoint, which provides services for social excluded young homeless people, uses a range of accommodation including emergency night shelters and short stay hostels as well as specialist projects for care leavers and ex-offenders.

Centrepoint director of policy Balbir Chatrik says landlord reluctance to rent to under-25s because of the single room rent means clients prepared to rent privately cannot. ‘It’s a considerable problem in terms of young people moving on from our accommodation and into the private rented sector.’

She says this comes on top of a distrust of the private rented sector because of its lack of security of tenure while private sector landlords are viewed as unscrupulous and unlikely to do repairs.

Chatrik adds: ‘When they find out how much rent they get because of the single rent they realise that they can’t afford private sector accommodation. It means that vulnerable young people are stuck in a hostel when they are ready to move on.’

She says that this means an added burden on the charity, which reduces the numbers of young people it can help.

Recipe for disaster

The YMCA is another charity involved in helping vulnerable young people. Monica Jones, who is welfare and benefits officer at the YMCA’s Burton-on-Trent project, says when she joined six and a half years ago it was evident that the single room rent was one of the biggest problems.

‘I was aware of the problem very quickly,’ she says. ‘Within weeks of moving out, many clients could not afford the shortfall so they end of sofa surfing or on the streets. It’s frustrating for us and depressing for them as they spend two years at the YMCA, are ready to live independently but are forced to sleep on a mate’s floor or sofa.’

Jones says that council and housing associations are unable to meet demand, and recent research she has done locally indicates that average rents are £75 per week, while under-25s can only get £57.

‘For many, the only way they can afford accommodation is to overcrowd themselves and sleep on floors or put up with dangerous conditions such as dodgy electrical wiring. Others live in flats but have no contract so have no security and live there day to day.’

The Novas Group, which runs direct access hostels, supported housing projects and foyers for vulnerable young people, attacks the single room rent for causing hardship to its clients.

Mike Summers, welfare benefits and debt management officer in Liverpool, points to one client whose recovery was thwarted by the restriction on their housing benefit. A 17-year-old’s relationship broke down with his mother and he needed emergency accommodation. Several private landlords made offers but the single room rent made them either impractical or unaffordable so there was no choice but to house him in a hostel for single homeless men.

‘Unfortunately, due to his age and experience, he found it very difficult and frightening to be suddenly in a hostel environment,’ Summers says. ‘Very quickly, there were disputes, confrontations and incidents. When I last saw him, his health and appearance had deteriorated; he wasn’t eating properly; there were suspicions of drug misuse; and he was facing eviction. I believe that he would have managed far better if he had been able to afford the rent on a private flat.’ Summers lost contact with the boy after he was evicted and fears that he is now street homeless. He has put out an alert to local agencies to keep an eye out for the boy.

‘The problems caused by the single room rent are chronic,’ says Summers. ‘There is no real reason for it and it is a form of discrimination. For service providers helping young people it is extremely frustrating.’

Even under-25s who are working also face discrimination because of the single room rent. Factors such as unemployment or sickness, the break-up of a relationship could risk serious arrears that are worsened by the restriction.

The British Property Federation says that its members are reluctant to have younger tenants because of the shortfalls caused by the curb.

Tyne and Wear-based scheme CATalyst struggles to convince landlords to house under-25s.

Deposit guarantee project worker Sharon Southam says: ‘Due to the under-25 rule landlords are very reluctant to accept our bond for single people. Young couples or just friends who move in together, if their friendship or relationship breaks down, then they may both find themselves in a homeless position.

‘We have had many cases where this has happened. Even if the person is working, landlords consider them to be a risk as they may become sick or unemployed.

‘In the current shortage of social housing, people are becoming more dependent on the private sector but there need to be incentives for private landlords. Changes for under-25s would be a start, equal housing opportunities for all.’

Research by Shelter into the local housing allowance confirms the lack of availability of housing for under-25s. While 46 per cent of one-bed flats advertised were affordable, only 26 per cent matching the shared room rate definition were within the range of the single room rent.

Housing benefit minister James Plaskitt concedes that there are availability problems in some areas but says that the answer does not lie in housing benefit reform. He thinks it lies in how the government addresses housing supply.

But that’s no good for William or the tens of thousands like him up and down the country who want to get on with their lives today. They can’t wait for the housing crisis to be magically solved. Housing benefit should be based on the cost of finding a home today.

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions rules out an imminent review of housing benefit restrictions in the Welfare Reform Bill despite the catalogue of evidence of suffering. He says: ‘There are no plans to reform the single room rent, although it will be overtaken by the local housing allowance shared room rate, which includes a wider range of shared properties to make sure the rates better reflect the available accommodation in the area.’

This appears to contradict the government’s own regulatory impact assessment laid down in the Bill under ‘age’ stating: ‘We intend to review the evaluation findings specifically for under-25s before finalising the proposals for the regulations.’

Any assessment should also clearly consider growing evidence that housing benefit departments are increasingly using discretionary hardship payments to top up single room rent cases.

With at least 150 MPs backing the abolition of housing benefit restrictions on under-25s, there is a powerful momentum for change. As the forthcoming Welfare Reform Bill is scrutinised in parliament, amendments can be tabled to end the suffering caused by this insidious curb on young people’s need for a home.