Legal Line

Release solicitor Kirstie Douse answers your legal questions

Reader’s question:

I have just received a letter from the council saying I’m ‘under occupied’ in my two-bed flat and my housing benefit will reduce from April this year. There is only me and my five-year-old son – how can we have too much room? I’m really worried as I already struggle financially and can’t work because I’ve just started hepatitis treatment.

Kirstie says:

From April 2013 the housing benefit (HB) rules change so benefit won’t be paid for a separate bedroom for a child under the age of 16.  Although you may be entitled to a larger property through your council/housing association, benefits will not cover the full rent for this.

As you have one more bedroom than you need (living rooms are considered as potential sleeping areas), your HB will be reduced by 14 per cent of your rent. So, if your rent is £100 per week you will receive £14 less HB per week. One possibility is to pay the difference (shortfall) between the rent and the HB, but this is not necessarily realistic if you are on benefits and unable to work. 

There are a few options available to you. One suggestion, that the council may already have made, is to move to a one-bedroom property with their assistance. This could be via a transfer or mutual exchange. There are often limited properties available, but councils should give priority to people who are under occupied. Many authorities also offer compensation for downsizing and/or pay for removal costs. Moving may be problematic in terms of location to your son’s school and you will not necessarily have free choice of properties. 

Alternatively, the council may give you permission to take in a lodger – this has to be approved in advance, as tenancies don’t normally allow this. However, this needs to be considered carefully, as depending on the lodger’s financial circumstances this may negatively affect your benefit even more. 

The most appropriate option for your circumstances would be to apply to the council for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). This is a fund that is operated to meet shortfalls between rent and HB. You will need to show exceptional circumstances or vulnerability to be considered eligible – your hepatitis treatment, and the effect on this of moving or worrying about finding the shortfall amount, will go towards this. You should provide supporting letters from any doctors or other people that you are engaging with for support or treatment. 

However, DHPs are generally only awarded for a year, with an expectation that during that time you change your circumstances – this may mean that you start work after treatment has completed and pay the shortfall yourself, or that you go forward with one of the other options outlined.

 Will you share your issue with other readers? Kirstie will answer your legal questions relating to any aspect of drugs, the law and your rights through this column. 

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For more information about this issue call the Release helpline on 0845 4500 215.