Diary Day 92: CFSME and Finances. About Housing Benefit – Entitlement, ESA, Something To Help You If You Are In The Same Situation.

I’ve moved house 3, nope, 4 times since I’ve had MECFS and been too unwell to work.  All of those house moves have happened as a direct result of not pulling in a salary that covered my London rent on the flat I was living in when I went from being on Statutory Sick Pay from my then employer, to claiming benefits.

This week I blogged about waiting for my local London Council to make a decision again about whether I was eligible for Housing Benefit (HBen) and Council Tax Relief (CTR) and yesterday I got the official OK from my local Council saying that I would be receiving the full entitlement to both.

My God, the shaky hands when I opened that letter and the relief afterwards is palpable! It now means that I can truly call this amazing new property ‘mine’, or as ‘mine’ as a property can be when you are a tenant. That will help me deal with my MECFS symptoms better too.

What’s the financial impact of going from salary to benefits?

Looking back on the first house move, it was a fraught time filled with so much change in my health and my life and so much worry about what being ill would mean for me financially. Being off sick does have financial implications, eventually.

Your salary pays for your home, it pays for your food, it pays for your transport, your lifestyle, your everything.

When I was facing the fact that my CFSME was going to be a long term sickness I was juggling all the pressures that brings. I had so many balls in the air about what the possible outcome of being long term sick would mean for me that I completely missed something important:

When you are facing long term sickness, the Welfare system can support you with your housing too

I thought I’d write a post that talked about that situation. It’s been prompted by a conversation with my ME-friendly Landlords. They told me that their family member who has ME had to return to work after their Work Capability Assessment  outcome was to tell them they’d be ‘fit to return to work after 3 months,’ So they did.

I didn’t. I was told the same thing but appealed against that decision and won and am now in the Support Group. However I could easily have thought that I had to return to work at that point. Part of me – and of course my employers too – told me the same.

The pressure to not-be-sick-with-ME was enormous, internally and externally. I felt like I was hanging onto my life, just, well barely.

Since I’ve had ME I’ve met a lot of people who I recognise are in that very same situation and a lot of them are really struggling with their health as a result and that’s upsetting to see 😦

What’s the local housing allowance for Housing Benefit in London? 

What was also telling me I had to get back to work, was that I thought at the time that I would lose my home if I didn’t. In my newly ME-addled brain, I hadn’t checked out what my Local Housing Allowance was for Housing Benefit. 

The LHA is the maximum amount of Housing Benefit a Council can award you. It is part of the welfare system and yes, it’s also been subject to assessment, cuts and caps.

Still an employee

I was in the first weeks and then months of being signed off sick from work. I hadn’t pursued that to it’s conclusion so I was still an employee.

As my GP and the CFSME Clinic were operating at a glacial pace and not one person I’d seen in either location had even hinted at a prognosis (no-one has EVER in the years I’ve had ME, hinted or discussed a prognosis with me) I was still anticipating that I’d recover and go back to work in time to prevent applying for benefits or having to move home.

That didn’t happen.

From Statutory Sick Pay to going onto claiming benefits 

At the end of a year’s sickness, my sick pay had changed from 6 months full sick pay to 6 months half pay and then at the end of that, no salary at all.

I still wasn’t recovered. All that waiting I’d done for the eureka moment when I’d wake up and feel better had gone. I was out of time.

The decision to move home rather than explore what Housing Benefits I was entitled to 

At the end of a year’s sickness I was still an employee. Just because you aren’t being paid, doesn’t mean that you aren’t employed any longer. You are. I STILL hadn’t had a prognosis and was operating under the assumption that I would return to work at some point but at a severely reduced amount of working hours.

The ME clinic’s attitude of “do this and it will work” was totally unhelpful too.

Cutting those working hours meant I couldn’t cover my rent. I decided, rather than phoning my local Council and finding out what their Local Housing Allowance was, and whether I’d be eligible, to move into a cheaper rented home instead.

I was thinking like an employee still, rather than someone who was in the benefits system.

Cheap rents in London means low standard housing 

That, my dear readers, was the start of all the problems with my housing.

In London, rents are cheap for a reason, I know that now. At the time though I didn’t know that the Local Housing Allowance – that means the maximum that the Council will pay me in Housing Benefit and CTR was £909.00 pcm.

My rent in the original flat I lived in was £875.00 pcm. IF I’d made the phone call to the Council and found out what I was entitled to, I needn’t have moved home and the last 3 years of living in low cost, low standard housing wouldn’t have happened.

Work out what you are entitled to 

Everything in the first year of being ill with MECFS felt like firefighting one crisis after another as a result of being sick. I was firefighting work, I was challenging the DWP decision to put me into the Work Related Activity Group, I was desperately ill as well. The last thing I truly needed was a house move on top of all that.

But I didn’t know what the benefits system was, so I didn’t know to ask.

Here’s what I’ve learned 

I am single and over 40. My only ‘income’ is Employment and Support Allowance. I am clearly under the £23,000 benefits cap that the recent emergency budget brought in. I am also in the ESA Support Group. Although the recent changes to benefits for people in the WRAG have been appalling, you will still be eligible for financial help with your housing if you fit certain criteria.

As a single person, my benefits are not assessed as if I am renting as a couple. If you rent in a couple, your CTR stops and your entitlement is cut by half.

Housing Benefit covering rents in London 

A friend of mine pointed out that £909.00 sound like a lot of money to spend on rent and in her area of the UK, “that would get you a 3-bedroom house.” Well it doesn’t in London. In London, the average rent for a 1-bedroom flat is over £1100.00 per month.

To be completely clear – in the search for a rental property in the area of London where I live – and I don’t live in Kensington and Chelsea 😉 – there are very, very few properties that fall under £1000.00 per month. You do the math. That means that you are going to have to find the discrepency between your LHA rate of £909.00 pcm and the rest of your rent somehow.

The Housing Benefit cap in London needs to be increased immediately. It needs to be £1000.00 pcm to stop the problems with low cost, low standard housing. None of the political parties or the Mayoral candidates seem to want to ‘go there’ with that policy. It would, however, in one fell swoop start to address the problems with affordable housing in London.

The good news – what you are entitled to if you are single and on Employment and Support Allowance

If you live in London and you are single and in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance and have no other income and your benefits do not exceed £23,000 per year, you will be entitled to £909.00 in Housing Benefit and full Council Tax Relief.

I understand that if you are on a low income as a result of cutting working hours then you can apply for housing benefits as well.

I wish I’d made that phone call to the Council when I was first off sick 

If I had done, I’d have found this out. I would have added it to the balls I was juggling and it would have helped me make a decision that was better for me than the one I made.

I look back over the last months and couple of years in the flats I was living in then, and wonder how much damage not making that phone call did to my health.

If I’d made that call, would I be a better better than I am now. Am I 2 years behind where I could be in terms of recovery or improvement and has the 2 years living in a mouldy, damp, flat set me back even further. How much of an impact has the last 6 months of searching for a new home made on my CFSME?

All these questions I’ll never know the answer to. But they started with the lack of one simple phone call. Stupid me.

© Lindy 2015

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