Two single mums with young families say they cannot afford to rent privately anywhere in Ipswich due to the cost of living crisis – with both now facing homelessness and an uncertain future.

Rabab Elshrife was made homeless for the first time alongside her three teenage daughters in December 2018 when a friend she was living with asked them to move out.

After spending three months in a council homeless shelter, Ms Elshrife was offered a three-year lease for a private tenancy on Myrtle Road for £713 a month sourced by housing officers – and before she’d accepted the offer was immediately discharged from the shelter and told to pack up her things and leave.

But with the 44-year-old only receiving £383 a month in housing benefit and earning £548.50 a month as a taxi driver, trying to cover the rent shortfall and put food on the table for her daughters in recent months has been near-impossible and left her in debt.

The average monthly budget in 2020 for a UK household was £2,548, according to research firm NimbleFins using Office for National Statistics data.

But for private renters this jumps to £3,109.

Together with her tax credits, child benefit, wages and housing benefit, Ms Elshrife ends up with just over £2,100 in her bank account each month.

But her outgoings – energy bills, food, transport, broadband, petrol, car insurance, health costs, clothing and school supplies for her children and credit card payments for amenities, among others – can come to over £2,400.

And the gap is only going to get bigger as the energy price cap rises by 54% in April and food and fuel prices surge, with inflation set to hit 7.7% next month.

“Sometimes we just don’t eat so I can keep a roof over our heads”, Ms Elshrife said. “We don’t do any activities. We don’t buy any new things.”

Because of the condition of the house, which the 44-year-old claims has damp, mould and water ingress, Ms Elshrife and her family desperately want to leave.

They have been sleeping in one room since last autumn because Ms Elshrife’s children are suffering from diagnosed chronic rhinitis caused by the mould in their rooms, and she claims her youngest tried to commit suicide in November 2021 due to severe mental health issues exacerbated by the situation.

Ms Elshrife said she cannot even afford a dehumidifier, and that the landlord has not provided one either.

The landlord, Terry Ward, said he hadn’t given the family a dehumidifier because he believed a lot of the issues were caused by poor ventilation, frequent shower use and drying wet clothes indoors.

He also said council staff had recommended he install a mechanical installation system, but had not provided sufficient evidence it would fix the problem.

And while he said the crack at the back of the property causing mould was being inspected at the end of the month, Ms Elshrife said it was “too late”.

'My career is on hold'

The single-mum has been looking for a new private tenancy for months, but said there was nothing in her budget anywhere in Ipswich.

She said estate agents had told her they were reluctant to rent to tenants on benefits – and were worried about “overcrowding” if they let Ms Elshrife rent a more affordable two-bed, which she and her daughters, aged 13, 16 and 17, said they were willing to do.

Mr Ward said because Ms Elshrife wanted to leave, he served her with a Section 21 no-fault eviction notice in February. This means when the family are made homeless on April 11 the council will be obliged to house them in temporary accommodation.

Ms Elshrife is from Egypt but came to the UK in 2003.

She said her dreams of pursuing an art career were “on hold” because of the stress of the situation, and that her daughters – one who is taking her A-levels and the other her GCSEs – were struggling to study at home.

The council said it was not “forcing” the family to stay in the property and would try and help them find an alternative private tenancy. With almost 3,000 applicants on the housing register, it said finding the family a council home was not a feasible solution.

According to letting agent Connells, average monthly rents for a three-bed property in Ipswich fall between £850-£1150pcm.

But the local housing allowance (LHA) for the area, which is a rate based on local rents and determines the maximum amount people can claim in housing benefit or Universal Credit to help cover their rent, only comes to £658 for a three-bed home.

The LHA was frozen from 2016-2020, elevated for 2020 in response to the pandemic, and re-frozen for 2021-22. Homeless charities have warned the disconnect between LHA rates and private rents is a major cause of homelessness.

Ipswich Borough Council said it was looking into the situation with Ms Elshrife’s benefits to see if she was receiving the full amount she was entitled to.

‘I don’t know where I’m going to go or what I’m going to do’

According to Gingerbread, the national charity for single-parent families, 95% have been worried about the rising cost of essentials in the last 12 months, compared with 57% of UK adults.

Lisa Townend, a 38-year-old single mum currently living in Ipswich Borough Council’s Newnham Court homeless shelter with her two children, is one of them.

The entirety of Ms Townend's income is made up from benefits due to her disability, and the fact she is a carer for her extremely violent and autistic 10-year-old daughter.

When she was evicted from her three-bed in Briarhayes Close after six years and made to leave in February this year, she couldn’t find anywhere else to live because of the “sky-high rents”.

“My landlord never changed the rent from £775 in all the years we were there”, Ms Townend said. “But right now, I can’t find anything with three bedrooms for less than a grand.

"I can't afford that and pay for bills and everything else on top.

“I have no idea where we’re going to go or what we’re going to do."

Ms Townend said the cost of living crisis was making things "impossible" for families like hers.

She and her two children are currently sharing one room at the hostel, and by May will find out whether they qualify for a place on the council’s housing register so they can bid on affordable council homes.

In the meantime, a council spokesman said it was trying to find Ms Townend a privately rented home during the statutory 56-day homelessness relief period.

But because she shares 50/50 custody of her son with her ex-partner and is classed as having a two rather than three-bed need, she receives £608 a month in legacy housing benefit.

She is also only entitled to bid on two-bed council homes.

Government policy expects the child who doesn’t live there full-time to “sleep in the lounge”, the council confirmed.

But Ms Townend said: “My daughter has constant meltdowns and has assaulted my son before because of her condition. She needs her own space, and he can’t sleep in the lounge as a six-year-old.

“Right now all of us just feel despair at the situation.”

What has the government said?

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said LHA rates were going up by 3.1% on April 1, while the Department for Levelling Up said it had given the average working family an extra £1,000 in their pockets this year by boosting Universal Credit and rebates on council tax.

The spokeswoman added: “We recently announced a further £500m for helping families with food and energy costs through our Household Support Fund, doubling the amount of support available, and over 1.5m households have benefitted from an almost £1bn boost to the LHA.”

But John Pitts, chairman of the Eastern Landlords Association, said “woefully inadequate” LHA rates were holding benefit claimants back from renting privately and made them an unappealing option when estate agents were flooded with applicants.

“The way things currently are, and the way rents have spiked, a tenant on benefits will rarely have enough income to comfortably afford to live in a property.