Devon renters priced out by Housing Benefit freeze

People renting homes in Devon are seeing their income increasingly squeezed as housing benefit has failed to keep up with rising costs. Almost all of the 556 privately rented properties available in Devon this week on the Zoopla website are advertised at more than the local housing allowance – the amount paid by housing benefit.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

The sum varies according to the local rental market but has been frozen since 2020. It is meant to be set to cover the cost of the cheapest 30 per cent of homes on the private rental market. But rents soared in Devon during the pandemic as landlords sold up or forced out tenants so they could switch to more profitable holiday lets. As a result, almost all the properties listed this week in Devon, from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom homes, were unaffordable from housing benefit payments alone.

That means renters claiming the support will have to find extra cash to cover the shortfall from their other income. It could also force families to move around the county in a kind of postcode lottery, to where the allowance most closely matches rents, usually in more rural areas. Others could end up homeless if they cannot find the extra cash to cover the gap when they are forced to move.

MPs on the select committee for Work and Pensions released a report in the summer recommending an increase in the local housing allowance. The housing campaign group Shelter says: “For renters, the cost of the living crisis is being driven by a failing housing policy. Having to make up ever-increasing shortfalls in housing benefits means that a growing number of families are now having to make the difficult choice between rent and food: eviction or eating. As the cost of living rises, growing housing benefit shortfalls risk pushing people into homelessness as they struggle to avoid rent arrears and eviction.”

Searching on Zoopla this week for two-bedroom homes suitable for a single parent with two young children, the cheapest rental in Exeter was a flat in Cowick Street, advertised at £183 a week. That is more than £25 a week above the allowance of £156.49.

Outside the city, but still in the area covered by the allowance, which has the highest rates in Devon, there was a flat in Starcross at £156, a flat in The Parade, Exmouth, at £167, and a two-bedroom semi-detached house at Christow at £179.

In South Devon, where the allowance is lower at £138.08, there were no affordable properties on offer. The cheapest two-bedroom home was a flat in Pembroke Road, Torquay, at £150 a week. In Torbay outside Torquay, the lowest price was £196 for a two-bedroom terraced house in Brixham. The cheapest similar property in Paignton was a cottage at £207, or a terraced house at £208.

Torbay has a particularly acute problem with housing affordability, as one in four households renting privately and there is a low level of social housing. That means families are even more vulnerable to the housing crisis, as rents rise due to a shortage of available homes, and rises in inflation and energy bills erode spending power. Commenting on a post on Facebook about the effect of the housing crisis in Paignton, one user said they had been looking for a property to rent for seven months, and had viewed around 50 without success.

In North Devon, the local housing allowance for a two-bedroom property is £126.58. Of the six homes available for rent in the Barnstaple area, the cheapest was a maisonette at Sticklepath at £164 a week, followed by a flat at Fremington for £167. In the Bideford area, a two-bedroom house was on offer at £138 a week in Great Torrington, the cheapest in the whole of Devon, but still more than £10 a week above the local allowance.

The cheapest three-bedroom home in Devon was a bungalow at Highampton, near Beaworthy, close to the western edge of the Exeter valuation area. The cost at £160 a week put it below the £189.86 Exeter allowance. Renters a few miles west or north are entitled to a much lower amount for the same size of property, at £149.59 a week. That is the rate payable in Braunton, where the next cheapest three-bedroom home was on offer at £173.

Three bedroom homes at £185 a week were advertised at Hatherleigh and Okehampton, both in the Exeter allowance area and therefore just below the allowance limit. At Paignton, where the amount payable is the South Devon figure of £168, the same rent for a three-bedroom home made it unaffordable for claimants.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that the cost of private home rental in the South West region grew by the fastest rate ever in the twelve months to June. Prices were 4.1 percent higher in June 2022 than in June 2021 – the largest year-on-year increase since comparative records began in 2006. The record-breaking hike in home rental came at the same time that workers across Britain saw their regular pay fall by 3 percent, according to separate figures from the ONS.

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