THOUSANDS of Wearside families have been hit by the bedroom tax, according to new figures.
Research by the National Housing Federation (NHF) shows 4,616 households were affected by the controversial policy in Sunderland, the third highest in the North East, with £724 the average amount lost per year.
The welfare reform sees housing benefit cut if someone living in social housing is deemed to have an extra bedroom in their property.
County Durham was the hardest-hit area in the region, with 7,325 families affected, while Newcastle came in second, with 5,668.
Housing associations, opposition politicians and charities have all condemned the under-occupancy penalty – which came into force in April – which they say penalises some of the most vulnerable people in society.
The Government argues the penalty – officially called a spare room subsidy – is supposed to encourage people with additional rooms to move to a smaller property.
However, critics say a shortage of suitable housing means many people are trapped in larger properties and have no choice but to run up huge debts as their housing benefit will no longer cover the full cost of their rent.
Earlier this year, hundreds of protesters gathered in Durham city centre to demonstrate against the move.
Monica Burns, the NHF’s North East external affairs manager, said: “These new Government figures show that the bedroom tax is affecting thousands of people in the North East – for many, there isn’t even anywhere for them to downsize to.
“There simply aren’t enough smaller social homes available, and the cost of private rented housing is rising all the time.”
Across the North East, almost 39,000 families were hit by the bedroom tax in August according to the data which was released by the Government and analysed by the NHF – the first to show actual numbers affected by the policy.
The figures also shows that the North East has the highest proportion of families living in social housing affected by the bedroom tax in the country, with families on average losing £687 housing benefit per year.
The figures don’t include the full extent of families affected – it excludes working families, previously in receipt of a small amount of housing benefit, whose entitlement has been completely wiped out by the bedroom tax.
Louise Young, Welfare Benefits Caseworker at Citizens Advice Sunderland, said: “We have seen a large increase in the amount of people requesting a food parcel, people are having to decide whether or not to pay for their rent or to buy food.
“We have made an increasing number of referrals to local food banks for people who are unable to feed themselves and their families due to this extra drain on their resources.
“The Government have stated that Discretionary Housing Payments will be available to cover the shortfall in rent while people look for smaller accommodation.
“However, Sunderland Council have confirmed that Discretionary Housing Payments are only to be paid to meet short-term needs.
“A client could be waiting for years for a smaller property, but Discretionary Housing Payments will not be paid for such a long term.
“Also, there have been significant delays in processing Discretionary Housing Payments with applications taking a minimum of six weeks in the most straight forward of cases, usually much longer – by that point the client can be in considerable arrears.”
Councillor Richard Bell said his Redhill ward has been hit hard by the changes.
“To be honest, the figures don’t surprise me,” he said. “A lot of people are already facing problems in the current economic climate and I can’t really see how the situation will improve.”
The Government says the under-occupancy charge is a “necessary reform that will return fairness to housing benefit”.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We have given councils £190 million to make sure those in need, including disabled people, are supported through welfare reforms and we are confident the pot will provide the right help. The taxpayer can no longer afford to pay for spare bedrooms.”