It would have been hard for even the most politically unengaged to avoid the recent press coverage on the so called “bedroom tax”, which came into effect on 1 April 2013. Some have decried the move as unfairly penalising those without viable alternative options, whilst others have declared it as a necessary step towards addressing the under occupancy of social housing. But opinions and politics aside, what do the changes actually mean for tenants?

Housing benefit is a means tested benefit available for tenants on low incomes or receiving certain welfare benefits to go towards their rent. It was first introduced in its current form in 1982, although assistance towards rent in some form has been available since approximately 1919. The administration of housing benefit is often criticised but assistance with rent is arguably one of the foundations of the welfare state and a vital factor in the prevention of homelessness.

Under new legislation introduced by the coalition government, from April 2013, council tenants and housing association tenants will have their housing benefit entitlement reduced if their home has as a “spare” bedroom. The amount of housing benefit tenants receive has been reduced by 14% for those with one spare bedroom, and 25% for those who have more than one extra bedroom.There has been ample speculation over recent months as to the full extent of the cuts and the relevant exemptions. We now know that the new rules allow one bedroom for each adult or couple. Children under 16 are expected to share a bedroom if they are the same gender and children under 10 are expected to share a bedroom whatever their gender. The changes do not apply to those of state pension age or over.When determining the number of bedrooms needed, children who don’t normally live at the property are not included, and children who are cared for by parents living separately will only be counted as living with the parent who receives child benefit. For families with disabled children, local councils will determine whether the extra room is needed depending on the severity of the disability and whether another child’s sleep would be disturbed by sharing a room. This decision will be made on a case by case basis and therefore a significant amount of uncertainty remains.

By a last minute amendment, foster children and members of the armed forces who are expected to return are counted as resident, as are students who are away but live at the property for at least two weeks in the year.

Adults who cannot share because of a disability, and children who cannot share for reasons other than disability will be affected by the cuts. Discretionary housing payments may be available for some tenants facing hardship because of the changes, such as disabled adults living in adapted properties, but each local council’s discretionary payment pot will be limited.

The full effects of the changes will not be known for some time; neither will they have time to settle before the system is shaken up again by the introduction of Universal Credit, which will gradually be introduced from later this year. Universal Credit is a new single payment for people who are looking for work or on a low income, and will replace a number of benefits including housing benefit. With talks of further cuts on the political agenda, the future for those on relying on housing and other benefits may remain uncertain for some time.