FEWER than a tenth of tenants on housing benefits looked for work to make up shortfalls in their rent in Northern Ireland.
Instead they cut back, with almost half spending less on essentials last year because the state housing allowance was lower then rent charged by private landlords, researchers for the Department for Social Development found.
Others borrowed from friends or family, or drew on other benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance.
A charity warned people could be made homeless because of changes introduced by the Government. This is the first independent report in Northern Ireland about the impact of alterations to local housing allowances on claimants and landlords.
“Participants explained that making such economies was very difficult, but something they simply had to do in order to keep the roof over their heads. It was ‘always a struggle’, as one put it, but it had to be done ‘otherwise you would be out on the street’,” the document said.
The Government wants to encourage people on benefits to go back to work by reducing their entitlements gradually as they earn more.
As part of wider welfare reform, changes to the local housing allowance were introduced last year. The allowance is a way of calculating benefits for tenants in privately rented accommodation to ensure those in similar circumstances in the same area receive the same amount of financial support.
These measures include removing the £15 a week “excess” payable to tenants who rented a property below housing allowance rates; capping rates by property size and scrapping the five-bedroom rate.
Almost two thirds of claimants in Northern Ireland said the housing allowance did not meet their rent and had to be supplemented.
The most common action taken was to spend less on household essentials, done by nearly half (44%) of claimants facing a gap between payments and rent demands. Over a third of those surveyed (37%) cut back on non-essential items in their budget.
Lone parents in particular highlighted the importance of ensuring their children had a home to live in, even if that meant reducing essentials, the report said.
Eighteen per cent responded to the shortfall by drawing on income from other benefits (like Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support or Incapacity Benefit).
Several felt family members would always help them out and ensure they had enough to pay for essential budget items, borrowing sums as small as £5 a time. Relatively small numbers used their savings or used a loan or credit card.
Only 8% were looking for a job, 3% were searching for a better paid job and 4% were considering increasing their hours worked. Only 3% moved home.
The Housing Rights Service gives independent advice to people experiencing problems. Nicola McCrudden, policy manager, said: “We are seeing increasing problems for single people under 35 who are only entitled to housing benefit for shared accommodation.
“Many of these tenants are struggling to find alternative affordable accommodation and, whilst temporary help with shortfalls may be available through discretionary housing payments, this cannot be relied upon indefinitely.
“Unless rents can be lowered, or more shared accommodation becomes available for benefit claimants, our fear is that people will be made homeless.”
The survey of local housing allowance claimants included 254 interviews across case study areas in Armagh, the Greater Shankill and West Belfast.
It was carried out by a research consortium from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Institute of Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Ipsos Mori, and partly funded by the Northern Ireland Executive.