RENT arrears in Hartlepool have rocketed by almost £50,000 since the launch of the controversial bedroom tax just three months ago.
Hundreds of social housing tenants in the town have fallen into thousands of pounds of debt with their rent after being hit by the tax, which came into force in April.
Housing Hartlepool, the town’s biggest social housing landlord, has seen its rent arrears rocket by £46,000, and almost two thirds of tenants subject to the bedroom tax are now in arrears.
Hartlepool artist Jason Gaffney, 24, who has fallen into debt because of it said: “Straight away I fell into arrears with it.”
And town MP Iain Wright fears many tenants could be facing eviction as they battle to make ends meet.
Housing Hartlepool, which manages 7,006 properties across town, has £521,524 owing in rent arrears.
At the end of March, just before the bedroom tax came in, arrears stood at £475,576 – making an increase of £45,948.
Dave Pickard, director of operations of the Vela housing group, which includes Housing Hartlepool, said: “These figures show the impact that the Government’s Welfare Reform policy is having on our tenants.
“We have visited each and every tenant affected by this policy to ensure they understand the implications of the policy and offer them every possible support.
“We will continue to work closely with families and individuals to offer them advice and guidance to try and assist them in dealing with the financial hardship that the impact of the under occupation charge could cause.
“It is worrying though to see the increases in debt and although some tenants are moving to avoid the impact, others are staying put to try and manage.
“We are also beginning to see signs that some tenants are giving up their homes due to issues of affordability.“
The bedroom tax came into force on April 1 and affects social housing tenants in employment and those in receipt of housing benefits if they have any unoccupied rooms.
Households under occupancy have their benefits cut by around £13 each week for one bedroom or £22 for two bedrooms.
There are currently 1,150 Housing Hartlepool tenants subject to the bedroom tax.
Sixty three per cent, equivalent to 724 people are in now in arrears.
Just under half of those (44 per cent) owe less than £84 and 15 tenants have downsized since the new payment came in.
MP Mr Wright fears it will not be long before tenants could be faced with eviction as a result of the tax.
He said he has seen a definite increase in people struggling to make the payment in recent weeks.
Mr Wright said: “People are saying they simply cannot afford to make ends meet. I think it was to be expected.
“The government was adamant we wouldn’t see a rise in arrears but common sense dictated that’s exactly what you would see.
“I have written to the Prime Minister about it and had a response back basically saying they were ploughing ahead with this policy.
“People are saying they would be willing to move but there is not enough one bedroom properties.
“In the meantime the Government is penalising people who are wondering whether they should eat for seven days or pay the rent.
“The question is what will happen over the next couple of months.
“Iain Duncan Smith said nobody would be evicted as a result of the bedroom tax but Housing Hartlepool can’t sustain more and more rent arrears.”
Stockton-based Endeavour Housing Association, which manages a number of properties in Hartlepool, says it has not seen an impact on rent arrears.
But Angela Lockwood, chief executive of parent group North Star Housing Group, said: “Though our own statistics on rent arrears may suggest that the bedroom tax has not impacted on our tenants, there is little doubt that it has put many people under strain.
“We have seen an increase in the numbers of tenancies being terminated, with tenants citing the reason of affordability; this is something that is happening right across the North East, which is a real concern.
“We do everything we can to enable tenants to maintain their homes, but for some they feel they simply have to move.”
HARTLEPOOL artist Jason Gaffney was hit with the bedroom tax because he uses his second bedroom as a studio.
He immediately fell behind on his rent with Endeavour Housing Association after the bedroom tax came into effect in April and is currently around £50 behind.
The 24-year-old, who has bene unemployed for more than a year, suffered a £56 a month cut in his housing benefit and is struggling to keep up with his rent payments.
Jason, who lives in a £94 a month two-bedroom flat in Stockton Road, said: “Straight away I fell into arrears with my housing association.
“There is no negotiation about it. I pay off what I can to keep my home but it’s in small amounts here and there.
“I have been sent letters saying I am in arrears and warned if it goes on they will have to take it further legally.”
Jason has A-levels and a degree in art yet he has been unable to find work.
He is left with just £33 a week to cover food, heating, clothes and anything else.
Jason said he is willing to move into a one-bedroom flat to escape the bedroom tax but there are not enough properties available.
He added: “I am looking for anything that will pay the rent, I can’t be too choosy.
“I think the bedroom tax is just ridiculous. It doesn’t live up to the reason behind it in terms of cutting down the budget.
“Actually it is costing more with rent arrears and causing more hardship because there is less properties for people to move into.
“On no level does this make any sense. Nobody profits from it.”