THE number of people seeking advice on housing issues in Huntingdonshire rose by a third last year compared to the year before, new figures show.

And housing officials are bracing themselves for an even bigger surge in enquiries this year as benefit changes kick in.

Statistics released by Huntingdonshire District Council to The Hunts Post show 1,686 people sought housing advice and options interviews over the phone and face-to-face from April to December 2011. Whereas officials dealt with 1,268 people over the same period in 2010.

Though the number of homeless in Huntingdonshire remained the same over the two year period, at roughly 130 households, with the full force of last year's changes to housing benefits about to be felt and with more benefit changes around the corner, council officials expect to see a spike in the district's homeless over the next year.

Five hundred families will be affected by the changes in housing benefits, which were announced in April 2011, once a nine-month protection period comes to an end.

Of those, the majority will find their housing benefit will be cut by just a few pounds each week. Council officials are hoping in such circumstances, claimants will be able to negotiate with their private landlords so their rent can drop accordingly.

But a 'handful' of families are in line to see a dramatic reduction in their benefits by between £40 and £60 a week. Officials say they will work with those households to find cheaper properties, but if unsuccessful they could be faced with homelessness.

The council's housing needs and resources manager Jon Collen said: "The emphasis remains trying to help households stay in their own homes or find an alternative home so that they avoid a homelessness crisis situation.

"Despite seeing more people with housing problems we are successfully working with many of them so as to avoid a homelessness situation."

Changes to the housing benefit system has meant there are fewer properties available to benefit claimants.

Rates are now calculated on the bottom 30th percentile of local rents, so claimants can only access the bottom 30 per cent of the market, whereas before April 2011, they used to be able to access 50 per cent.

In addition, house building has slowed and more private sector landlords are pulling out of the rental market, as the economic downturn continues.

Landlords opting to sell their properties is the biggest cause of homelessness in Huntingdonshire, according to Mr Collen.

The district council is looking at ways of tackling the challenges. Among a host of initiatives will be a private sector nodule on its choice-based letting website Home-Link, and small interest-free loans to help households stave off homelessness.

Mr Collen said: "Our aim is to stimulate the private sector rental market and the housing market as much as possible. From a local authority point of view - Alconbury, Northbridge - will be delivering new housing and we have to ensure that through our planning powers."

He also appealed for people who are in housing need to make contact early. "You do get people who try to bury their heads in the sand. It is about trying to help people at an early stage."

INFORMATION: Drop-in clinics for people with housing enquiries are run at Pathfinder House Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. To find out more go to www.huntingdonshire.gov.uk/Housing or e-mail housingservices@huntingdonshire.gov.uk