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‘It leaves you with a sense of dread’: Bristol’s broken rental market one of England’s worst for families on housing benefit

Over a whole month, just one two-bed property in the city was affordable to private renters claiming housing benefits, according to new research by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

Image of terraced homes in Redfield, Bristol
In Disrepair: Bristol's broken renting system

“It’s horrid. You sort of get obsessed and it just takes over your life. You’re clicking and clicking on ads: ‘Hi, is this available to view?'”

Carlene, 43, is a mum-of-one who runs her own cleaning business but claims universal credit – which includes local housing allowance (LHA), the housing benefit paid to private renters – to top up her income. Earlier this year she found out she’d have to move from her home in Totterdown, which her ex-partner owns.

“When you do get through to an agent, you get an automated response, like, ‘Who is this for? What’s your income? Do you have children?’,” she goes on. “They may as well ask your blood type, it feels so invasive – and then they might come back to you and say the minimum income for this property is 50 grand.”

Social media is full of outraged stories – and desperate pleas – recounting similarly bleak experiences of trying to secure a home in Bristol. “You’ve got people moving from London, they’ll see a two-bedroom house for £1,500 – which is already ridiculous – and they’ll be like, ‘We’ll pay two grand’,” Carlene says.

The situation is especially hard for people claiming local housing allowance, which when it was introduced back in 2008 was designed to cover rents for the cheapest 50% of properties within a given area.

Rates have failed to keep pace with soaring prices though. For Bristol residents such as Carlene, who need a two-bed home, LHA amounts these days to a maximum £825 a calendar month. It won’t come as a surprise to many that £825 a month is nowhere near enough to cover most two-beds in this city.

But new research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (see box for further details) has revealed just how tough the picture is. 

The investigation identified only one two-bed home advertised on Rightmove in the Bristol area during the whole of July where the rent fell within LHA rates.

Homes ‘increasingly inaccessible’

Unsurprisingly, that property was snapped up within days. Bristol’s broad rental market area (or BRMA, the zone across which LHA rates apply) includes much of South Gloucestershire and chunks of North Somerset and BaNES, with the research demonstrating how unaffordable the whole city region has become.

“The [Bureau’s] findings make it clear that rents are far too high,” said Anny Cullum, policy and research officer at the community union ACORN.

“If the government is serious about getting a handle on the growing housing crisis, they need to work to bring down spiralling rents, which are increasingly inaccessible to many people,” Cullum added. ACORN has been protesting in Bristol over recent weeks over its exclusion from the city council’s Living Rent Commission, a group set up to investigate ways of making renting here fairer.

By 2011 local housing allowance rates were reassessed to cover the bottom 30% of rentals, rather than 50%, but failed to keep up with rising prices. A four-year benefit freeze from the middle of the decade then severed any real link between the two.

In April 2020 ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak increased rates to again match the bottom 30% of homes. But since then they have remained the same, even as rents have continued shooting up. 

The situation is now even worse than in 2019, when the Bureau found 6% of homes were within LHA rates. Private rental prices paid by tenants in the UK increased by 3.4% in the 12 months to August 2022, according to the Office for National Statistics, representing the largest annual growth rate since its records began in January 2016.

The independent Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping last month called for LHA rates to be raised urgently, given the cost of living crisis, to once more cover 30% of the rental market.

“There’s a real need to rebase local housing allowance back to the 30th percentile,” said Tom Renhard, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for housing. “We also need an inflationary increase immediately within other benefits, because there is a cocktail of things causing real problems for people.”

Bristol was in July the area with the ninth-highest disparity between LHA rates and the actual price of rents, the Bureau found. The shortfall between LHA and the monthly cost of a two-bed home averaged £375, according to the Bureau’s research. All the areas with greater shortfalls between LHA and rents were in London and the South East, although Bath (£350 shortfall) and Bournemouth (£340) were almost as unaffordable as Bristol.

‘I’ve got no security’

For Sarah, 38, who lives with her two girls in Kingswood, the shortfall between her LHA and rent is even greater than the Bristol average – about £500, after a £100 rise this year. Sarah, who works in children’s services, split from her partner two years ago, since when she’s had to claim universal credit. Money is still tight given the amount she must make up every month.

Sarah says a benefits advisor suggested she downsize from her three-bed house, because under government rules she can only claim LHA for two bedrooms. But in her experience, she adds, most suitable two-beds that come available are as expensive as her existing home – making trying to move a pointless exercise.

Despite it now being unlawful for landlords or agents to explicitly discriminate against prospective tenants because they claim benefit (so-called no-DSS clauses), the Bureau also found some were effectively still doing so. Earlier this year, Bristol City Council has pledged to crack down on ongoing benefit discrimination against renters.

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Of 10 agents or landlords nationally who responded to questions from the Bureau (a tiny minority of those contacted), two said the landlord would not rent to anyone on benefits. Meanwhile five said the renter would need a guarantor, one set out an income level the renter would need (“annual gross income equal to at least 30 times the monthly rental figure”) and just two said explicitly that the landlord would consider renting to someone in receipt of housing benefits.

Last time Sarah’s contract came up, her landlord wanted proof of her income, despite her having lived there for years. She was so worried about being kicked out that she included a detailed breakdown of her monthly outgoings. 

“I also sent a bit of a pleading letter, just to say that we may not own this house, but it’s our home, the children go to school, nursery here, and that as a recently single parent I felt safe on this street,” Sarah recalls.

“I consider myself a good tenant, someone who works hard,” she says, adding that she’s terrified of being priced out sooner or later. “I feel I’ve got no security at all – it leaves you with a sense of dread, because on paper I’m just a single mum on benefits.”

‘A needle in a haystack’

Polly Neate, the chief executive of national housing charity Shelter, said the Bureau’s findings reflect the perspective of the organisation’s frontline workers.

“Finding a safe home if you are on a low income is now like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” she said. “Housing benefit should be the safety net that stops people becoming homeless, but it’s frozen at 2020 levels – leaving renters desperately trying to make up the shortfall.”

“The new Prime Minister needs to get a grip on housing before even more people lose their homes this winter,” she said. “Housing benefit must be restored, otherwise struggling families, who’ve got nothing left to cut back on, will have no hope of paying private rents.”

Back in South Bristol, Carlene’s search has recently ended after months of stress. A friend of a friend, who was buying a house, told her in advance her rental place was coming empty, and she was able to cut a deal with the landlord – still several hundred pounds over the LHA rate – before it came to market. The property is not in great shape, but she says she felt she had no option but to take it to ensure her son has a roof over his head.

“It’s a home, but there’s still not 100% security for the future – I’m trying to block out that part, and it’s really hard,” she says. “My boy’s really struggling because at age six, he’s onto his fourth move, and I just want to make sure life is consistent for him.”

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