"Good morning, what a relief it was to see your leaflet come through my letterbox. Thank you." It has not been often that we get that response to the campaigning work we do.
The email continues; "I work 18 hours and claim a percentage of housing benefit...I have my two children at weekends so need the second bedroom...the way I see it is that I'm trying to work even though its only part time, what with the job situation and do not want to be sat at home, but still the government make it harder and risk splitting me from my children".
This is just one of thousands of stories we have encountered when out leafleting in Leeds against the Bedroom Tax.
Our group Leeds Hands Off Our Homes existed for a number of years to defend council housing provision, so when the full effects of the Welfare Reform Act started to become clear we just got out to inform and educate. Initially it was a paste table and a banner outside shops. We reasoned that if the Bedroom Tax was to be opposed we would ultimately have to protect tenants against eviction, so we had to get out on the estates to build a mass local campaign.
We got a cheap phone for the group, a gmail address, a website, facebook and twitter. We discovered that if people went on google and typed in Bedroom Tax our leaflet appeared on the DCH website and that led to receiving phone calls form Plymouth to Newcastle and Hull to Wrexham!
We moved from leafleting to holding meetings in church halls and Working Men's Clubs or pubs - anywhere local where we thought we could attract affected tenants. We have held five meetings and have five more planned. On average we are getting audiences of 40. But those attending quickly become participants, exchanging stories of what the Bedroom Tax means to them and if it does not affect them personally giving details of how it will affect other family members or friends.
In Leeds, the local authority originally believed that 7,500 tenancies would be affected with 1,500 more in the Housing Association sector. Of these the vast majority are single people or couples deemed to require one bedroom but living in 2 or 3 bedroom places. Leeds City council has had a policy of not putting families in "high rise" blocks so 2 bed flats have been given to single people. They have now been told they will lose 14 percent of their housing benefit and (in Leeds) 19 percent of their council tax benefit. This means potentially that approximately £17 a week will have to be found or there is the risk of arrears and eviction.
The problem for Leeds and the tenants is that one bed properties just do not exist in the social housing sector, so if a single person is to move it is into the private sector with 6 month assured short-hold tenancies replacing secure tenancies. Many young single people had tried the private sector and aren't keen to return. Single people under the age of 35 also are aware that in the private sector housing benefit is only payable for a room in a shared house.
Other single people or couples are those who have lived in a council house for years. They have brought up a family and taken tremendous pride in their "home" (not an asset to be traded). Now with the family grown up and moved away there are many in their 50s who have fallen foul of the Bedroom Tax.
These single people/couples see little point in moving, they will be unable to find the money to satisfy the council but the slogan "Keep Calm and Stay Put" had a resonance and we produced a poster to advertise an unwillingness to move.
If the single people stay put then the whole system snarls up. There is nowhere for anyone to downsize to. To ease the situation the council could evict those who fall into arrears but there would be a terrible financial price to pay (never mind the social and political cost). Using the councils' figures it seems it costs about £6,000 to evict a tenant and then about £5,000 to re-house someone who is unintentionally homeless and who can't make up the shortfall in rent. The cheapest option for the council is to leave people where they are and write off the arrears. Getting them to admit that will take a little while longer!
A full page advertisement in the local evening paper taken out by the DWP implies that the changes to housing benefit are to solve a shortage of social housing. No one believes this. The shortage of social housing can be solved by building more and not selling existing stock off at hugely discounted prices. The Bedroom Tax is simply an attack on the poor and in the long run is an attack on social housing itself.
We are now producing a second leaflet for tenants explaining the procedures the council may take. This means advising against pay day loans and loan sharks, against signing up for payments by direct debit and reminding people that legal aid still exists for housing possession cases and assisting in finding solicitors who can argue that to evict someone for 14 percent of their rent is disproportionate and therefore illegal.
We have called a demonstration against the Bedroom Tax in Leeds on the 20 April (assemble 12 noon outside the art gallery!). We hope it will be big, lively and full of those families we have met and who can join together to demand a policy of no evictions from the council and social landlords.
As the letters were sent out from Leeds council in the last week of March advising the tenants of the financial hit they were to suffer we started to receive messages from those who are vulnerable. Some are rightly scared and our campaign must find ways to protect them.