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Housing policy unfair and risky for young women

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Being young does not make you less in need of safe and secure housing.

The government’s housing benefit policy is forcing under-35s into unsafe and inadequate housing that puts many young women at risk, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Southampton, published with the Young Women’s Trust.

Housing benefit rates discriminate against under-35s, forcing them to live in cheaper – and often dilapidated – shared accommodation, usually with strangers.

Single people aged 18-34 are only permitted to claim housing welfare at the rate of a single room in a shared property, the Shared Accommodation Rate, whereas prior to 2012 they could claim at a rate based on a one-bedroom flat.

Being regarded as less in need than other groups in terms of housing has resulted in a policy that puts under-35s at a disadvantage and makes them one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of housing rights.

And since young single people are not entitled to the same rate of housing welfare in the private rental sector as those over 35, the government’s current housing policy is putting the young women leaving refuges at significant risk.

Working with Young Women’s Trust, which supports young women on low or no pay, Dr Eleanor Wilkinson and Dr Iliana Ortega-Alcázar uncovered numerous unintended – and often devastating – consequences of the policy.

They spoke to young domestic abuse victims who now had no choice but to live with male strangers, a situation that is damaging to their sense of safety, their mental health and their overall recovery process.

Young LGBT, black and ethnic minority women were particularly vulnerable too, with reports of racist and homophobic abuse being directed at them by those they were living with.

And although people with certain disabilities are exempt from the policy, mental health is not always taken into consideration and those already struggling with issues such as anxiety and depression reported a downward spiral while living with strangers.

The policy has also been responsible for preventing mothers regaining custody of their children.

Some mothers are experiencing a catch-22 situation, in which their age and the fact their child is not living with them prevents them claiming the benefit that allows them to move out of shared accommodation, but they are not allowed to have their child live with them in shared accommodation in order to become eligible to move out.

The report looks at the impact of cuts to the housing welfare – called Local Housing Allowance – that is available in England and Wales to young people aged 18-34, and living in the private rental sector.

This report focusses on how young single women are particularly affected by the Shared Accommodation Rate.

In their Equality Impact Assessment, the Department for Work and Pensions (2011, p. 7) argued that: ‘[a]s this policy is aimed at younger claimants without children most of those affected are men’.

As most claimants of the Shared Accommodation Rate are men then the government presumed that women would not be disproportionately disadvantaged by this policy.

However, this report highlights that the women that do claim the shared rate are particularly affected.

This report looks at age discrimination in relation to housing benefit and argues that young people aged 18-34 should be entitled to the same rate of housing benefit as those 35 years and above.

The problem with the reasoning behind the changed age threshold for the Shared Accommodation Rate is that it conflates the experience of sharing for young professionals with that of vulnerable young people at the lower end of the housing market.

The report recommends:

1 – The government should review the Shared Accommodation Rate, and subsequently either

I. Scrap the Shared Accommodation Rate, or

II. Roll the Shared Accommodation Rate back to 25 years of age

III. Exemptions are reviewed in light of equality impacts and that the following groups are made exempt:

– All victims of domestic abuse;

– Single parents with non-resident children;

– People struggling with mental health issues;

– Further investigate whether Shared Accommodation Rate claimants are even able to afford properties in their local areas.

2 – Provide the necessary funding to expand shared accommodation schemes in the private rental sector run by local authorities and local housing organisations.

Consider the staffing and resources necessary so that these schemes can a) help young people access good quality, safe and appropriate shared accommodation and b) provide the necessary management to make them successful.

3 – Shared accommodation in the private rental sector needs to be further regulated to guarantee decent physical standards.

Recommendations for local authorities:

1 – Ensure they are meeting their public sector equality duties in terms of housing welfare.

2 – Provide incentives to attract more landlords into working with local authorities and local housing organisations in setting up shared accommodation schemes in the private rental sector.

3 – Develop disincentives for landlords who do not take on people in receipt of housing benefit.

Recommendations for local authorities and organisations working with young people accessing shared accommodation:

1 – Review existing housing advice services so that they are able to cater for all populations providing a sensitive and targeted service.

2 – Ensure frontline staff are trained on exemptions to the Shared Accommodation Rate, and that they understand public sector equality duties.

3 – Follow best practice examples when setting up and running shared accommodation schemes in the private rental sector.

4 – Provide all tenants with pre tenancy training on managing a shared tenancy, match tenants, and provide ongoing management of shared houses.

As illustrated in this report, the ‘lived experience’ of shared accommodation is starkly different for students or young professionals sharing accommodation and precarious, low-income or unemployed sharers living with strangers at the lower end of the private rental housing market’.

And many of the young people interviewed felt very strongly that defining one’s eligibility to housing benefit by age is unfair; being young does not make them less in need of safe and secure housing.

To read the full report, click here.

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