"My bill's £25 a week and they basically said I either pay it or get evicted...It's not my fault that my children grew up and moved out, leaving me with the spare rooms" Elaine Collins
Anguished residents have staged the first lobby of a housing association provider in Greater Manchester as frustration over the organisations' lack of commitment to adequately protect communities from the savageries of the Bedroom Tax reached boiling point.
Tenants of Contour Homes, one of the North West's largest housing providers, are angered by the way they believe the housing association is one of many attempting to pass the buck to the Government over the evictions and increased debt cases that have been predicted will occur as a result of the implementation of the tax.
Whilst the policy, which came into force last Monday, has been widely condemned as an outright `war on the poor by millionaires', deeply unjust and flawed, many housing associations vocally opposed to the tax prior to its enactment are now warning their tenants that action may be taken against them should they fail to pay.
A strong group of residents from the Hillock Estate in Whitefield took the fight against the bedroom tax into Contour's main office in Salford's Lowry Mall to demand that it rethinks its policies after they were told last week that the organisation has a policy of eviction if in arrears.
They also expressed their outrage at the organisation's "inadequate and patronising" response to the Tax, which like many other social housing providers is focused on teaching tenants to budget. Contour Homes owns 916 properties on the estate and a total of 12,503 in the region.
Residents believe that the association, which netted a £7.4million surplus last year, should use its resources to prevent evictions and waive arrears of those who cannot afford to pay it.
Since coming into force on the 1st April those living in social housing, and in receipt of full or partial housing benefit, will have their support decimated if they are found to be `under occupying' their home. This amounts to cuts of 14% for those classified as having one spare bedroom and 25% for those with two or more.
Like other tenants hit by the tax, Elaine Collins, who has lived in the same house on the estate for thirty years, fears she is at risk of losing her home for having two spare bedrooms.
"My bill's £25 a week and they basically said I either pay it or get evicted" she said "It's not my fault that my children grew up and moved out, leaving me with the spare rooms.
"They reckon I could be waiting three years for a house" she added "I will get into arrears which I have never been in before. Then they won't transfer you, only evict you. When they won't give you a one bedroom property but are willing to put you on the streets how can that be right? If I don't pay and they decide to evict me they won't have a duty to re-house me because I'll classify as intentionally homeless as I `chose' not to pay the bill. It's not responsible for a social housing association to suggest this."
Stood next to several neighbours who have not been hit financially by the tax but came in support, the breadth of the impact of the Tax was also clear.
"It's going to split up communities and it will break down relationships" explained Elaine "We all look out for each other so if I move away I will lose so much more than a house. The effect of this Tax if it continues uncontested is likely to devastate many people's lives. The mantra united we stand has never been more important. It's important people affected by this Tax know there is active support out there that is growing in strength and in number as we speak."
Vanda Smith, is another resident facing eviction, despite contesting her inclusion in the Tax…"I'm being billed £13.50 a week because the government think I've got a spare bedroom which isn't true" she said "I live in a three bedroom house with my two sons but one's a box room and another's only small yet we've still been classed as under-occupying because under their new rules both of them have to share a room despite their almost ten year age gap.
"To make a 15 year old, someone who's almost an adult, and a six year old share is ridiculous" she added "He'll also be 16 in nine months which means we'll be allowed one room each, so I've appealed for an exemption so we can avoid having to move for nine months but I've not heard anything about that.
"I've been without hot water for three weeks but I've not had any meaningful response about that either, they just fob you off" she explained "They only seemed interested in contacting me last week to ask why I've not paid the Tax so far. It really shows their true colours. I just can't afford it. I'm worried that it could make us homeless."
In a petition presented at the lobby to the managing director, Judith Winterbourne, they demanded that Contour made assurances that no householder would be evicted in a move echoing Brighton Council's recent decision. They also asked that the association consider following Knowsley Housing Trust in reclassifying its housing stock as smaller properties to provide security to tenants.
Adam Rose, from Whitefield said: "It's a war on the poor by millionaires. The response to this war on the poor by landlords is to help tenants learn to budget better. What this really means is that they are persuaded to spend less on food, heating or clothes.
"From the information in their annual report the cost of reclassifying homes to one bedroom is £2.40 per house which Contour Homes could easily afford" he added "As social landlords we expect them to put the needs of their tenants before the dictates of an unjust government. We demand that they don't evict anyone because they're not able to pay Bedroom Tax and that they write off any arrears of those who can't pay, or reclassify housing stock so that residents get their housing benefit paid in full.
He praised the success of the lobby, which could be set to become a popular tactic employed by enraged and worried social housing tenants around the UK.
"I think everyone was really inspired by the lobby. There was a real sense of determination and strength amongst residents as to how we held the management to account. I think we really worried the managing director; it doesn't seem like they realised they'd have to deal with residents in this way. After the success today we need to plan but I think if we continue to bring more people together in opposition we could see off this tax like we did the Poll Tax."
In a non-committal reply to the lobby Ms Winterbourne stated that she agreed that it was a retrospective law, supported residents with their aims and added that "nobody is talking evictions". The organisation would not, however, take an outright oppositional stance to the now active policy by making a commitment to residents' requests not to evict tenants and waive arrears caused by the Tax.
"Contour Homes was set up to house people and as such has obligations to all tenants" she said "We understand the worry and upset that the Government's Bedroom Tax is causing our tenants. We are deeply concerned about the impact of it on our customers, some of whom are vulnerable and disabled, and we are doing all we can to provide support. We have lobbied against the Bedroom Tax and are calling on the Government to think again."
Asked whether the association would consider reclassifying its properties she added: "We are unable to re-classify all our properties as one-bedroom homes. Our properties are listed as collateral for loans to help us provide more homes for people in need across the North West."
Residents appeared less than impressed with the response. Jacqui De La Maziere, who lives in a Contour Home in Tithebarn Court, Stockport and has been charged £14 a week said "Their response was disgraceful and non-committal and nothing more than I expected, frankly. There's no substantial help at all. I've been asking for assistance since January as I've been struggling to get a job. They only came to visit me two weeks ago. I've been told that I don't qualify for any more points if I apply again for re-housing which would place me higher up the housing list so I'm a sitting duck waiting to be evicted."
Jane Smith added: "They say they are sticking up for you but that's crap. Social housing should be secure. If they try to evict anyone we will all go around to their house to stop it. We'll chain ourselves together; whatever we need to do we will do. The government is attempting to divide and rule but our strength is in our numbers - we will be back. United we stand divided we fall."
The first Broughton Against the Bedroom Tax public organising meeting will be held at the Broughton Trust Office in the Humphrey Booth Centre at 6pm on Monday 8th April
It will be followed by a Manchester-wide meeting on 9th April at 7pm at Friends Meeting House, Mount Street which will plan for the first joint Manchester and Leeds demonstration on April 20th in central Manchester.
For more information go to: http://www.nobedroomtax.co.uk/ or contact the facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/NBTGM?ref=ts&fref=ts
And read No Bedroom Tax's latest campaigning and support guide - click here
Words and photos by Chloe Glover