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Benefits Blog

by Tombenefits

news and thoughts from the world of welfare rights
24 May 2011 at 17:47

Discretionary Housing Payments

For most potential recipients, entitlement to Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit is a clear cut 'yes or no' situation. You tell the Council about your income, they compare this with your eligible rent or Council Tax, do their sums and give you the answer.

The amount payable varies hugely of course, from just pennies a week to completely covering the amount you pay your landlord and/ or the council.

Benefits like Income Support, Income based Jobseeker's Allowance, Income related Employment and Support Allowance or the Guarantee part of Pension Credit normally 'passport' you to full entitlement. Anyone though can apply simply on income grounds - you don't have to be on one of these benefits to qualify.

Increasing numbers of people - whether on 'passporting' benefits or not - are, though, facing shortfalls between what they receive in Housing and Council Tax Benefit and what they actually have to pay.

Huge increases this benefit year in 'non dependant deductions' - i.e. amounts deducted from benefit because of other adults living in the household - are one cause.

Housing Benefit meanwhile is more often falling short of meeting the rent because of recent changes to the way in which Local Housing Allowance is calculated. Local Housing Allowance isn't a benefit in itself - it's the name for the scheme councils use to decided the upper limit they will pay in Housing Benefit on properties of various sizes. At the moment it affects only private tenants.

Until recently, Local Housing Allowance upper limits were calculated using the 50th percentile of local rents - i.e. reflected the middle range of properties available. Changes introduced nationally in April though mean that it's now the 30th percentile that they look at, naturally reducing the upper amounts payable.

Councils can also refuse to cover the full rent you pay with Housing Benefit if they consider you to be 'overhoused' - i.e. living in a property that is bigger than you or your family needs.

And additionally, if you are under 25 and single, they will restrict your Housing Benefit to covering only the cost of a room in a shared house, with plans to extend this to the under 35s from April 2012.

What, then, can you do if your housing costs are consistently more than you can get help with? Well, sadly, not much in many situations other than find somewhere else to live or dig into any other income you have. I quite regularly meet people subsidising their housing costs from money they're theoretically paid to cover food, heating and other day-to-day necessities.

In some circumstances however - especially temporary circumstances - Discretionary Housing Payments can ease the situation.

I helped someone apply for one last week. The couple in question already have to find around £40 weekly to make up a shortfall between their Housing Benefit and their rent, which they found just about manageable on their existing budget.

Mina however has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and will, as a result of the surgery and treatment ahead of her, have to give up providing care for a neighbour. And as a result of this, the amount the government says she and her disabled husband need to live on will reduce by just over £30 a week; a doubly difficult situation to find themselves in.

Unusually, I couldn't identify any immediate source of additional income for them. Longer term we'll work together both to see if Mina may become eligible for DLA and to see if we can get her husband's existing award of lower rate DLA Care increased, but this will take time and also carries a risk of it being lost as well as increased - not something to rush into.

Then I remembered Discretionary Housing Payments.

They're not Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit as such, but they can help with the same costs. They can be paid - as their name suggests - at the discretion of the local council - when:

> a household is entitled to Housing Benefit or Council tax Benefit, and

> the household needs extra help to meet their housing costs.

In theory, DHPs can help with all the sorts of shortfalls I've outlined above, rent in advance, deposits, removal costs or the cost of having to have two homes for a while - e.g. where someone has had to leave the marital home because of domestic violence. Local Authorities have discretion to decide how much is paid and for how long.

In reality though, given that they have to meet these costs out of a cash limited budget, this means Local Authorities having to prioritise requests, saying yes to some and no to others.

It also means that they will be more likely to say yes when people's circumstances are temporarily altered than agree to on-going commitment to topping up shortfalls, especially in situations where they feel there are no 'extenuating' circumstances or that finding alternative cheaper accommodation is an option open to the household.

I hope though that Mina's request will be exactly the type of circumstance where they will say 'yes' - and if not will be seeking other grant assistance for her.

Because Local Authorities have so much discretion over DHP schemes, application processes vary from area to area. Some have forms they need filled in, others will be happy to act on a letter, an email or even a telephone call.

Which department of the Local Authority administers them varies too - if in any doubt ring the main switchboard number and ask them where requests should be directed to.

Most importantly, when applying, try to explain the difficulties you have which for example increase your costs or make it difficult for you to move - e.g.

> any health problems or disabilities you or family members have

> any need for extra space because of this

> any caring commitments

> needing to be close by for medical treatment

> someone's job being close by

Any advice agency should be able to help you to apply although of course if you're close enough to a Maggie's centre, it would be lovely to see you...


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