CHANGES to housing benefit rules from this month could result in Huntingdonshire families becoming homeless, district council officials are warning.

Although the rules for new housing benefit claimants in private rented accommodation changed last April, existing claimants have had transitional protection from the new, lower rates for the past nine months.

That protection has now gone, and families whose claims are coming up for their annual renewal could see their money cut by between £3 and £70 a week, depending on their circumstances.

"This is when some households may begin to fall into rent arrears and face the threat of eviction and possible homelessness if they are unable to afford to maintain their current home or find cheaper housing," say Julia Barber, the council's head of customer services, and housing chief Steve Plant in a report to one of HDC's scrutiny panels tomorrow (Thursday).

"The council pays approximately £9 million a year to 1,900 housing benefit claimants renting in the private sector. The changes will result in a reduction of £370,000 a year being paid in housing benefit," they say.

But the Government believes the level of housing benefit has bid up local rent and that reducing the level of housing benefit and capping it - the cap is at a level that does not affect claimants in Huntingdonshire - will exert downward pressure on private sector rents.

But that is not what landlords are telling the council. "The Government expects landlords to renegotiate the rents downwards, which is optimistic in a seller's market," Mrs Barber told The Hunts Post yesterday.

The council has written to claimants individually to tell them what effect the changes will have on their benefit, in the hope that they can adjust their finances to offset the cut. But it is bracing itself for the possibility that some families will be evicted because they cannot manage the change.

"People who have to leave as a result are not intentionally homeless, so we may have a responsibility for them," she said. "For the moment we have just got to wait and see. People can sometimes be overwhelmed by a range of problems."

"The changes in the housing benefit system have the potential to make some households' current homes unaffordable, as their levels of entitlement reduce as their period of protection ends, forcing them to look for alternative, cheaper housing, and have the potential to reduce the number of private sector properties available to housing benefit claimants, as a result of the lower local housing allowances levels," the report says.

"The knock-on effect of this may be to increase the number of households faced with homelessness because of the unaffordability of their current home and/or their inability to find a new home within the housing benefit levels that apply to their particular circumstances.

"With no other alternatives available to them a proportion of these households will turn to the council for help. The council … will have duties to some of these households under the safety net of the homelessness legislation.

"The council will incur costs where it has to place some of these households into temporary accommodation because of their homelessness."

So the saving to Whitehall could be balanced by increasing the costs incurred by local councils.

Also taking effect this month is a change that will affect 72 single claimants aged under 35 in Huntingdonshire, who will each lose £36 a week when they are moved onto the 'shared accommodation rate'. The report says there is a risk of an increase in homelessness if tenants cannot make up the shortfall in the rent.

"There are limited options for single people under 35 as there is a relatively small number of houses in multiple occupation in the district," the authors say.