The biggest social housing landlord in the north west says almost a quarter of its tenants subject to the so-called "bedroom tax" are being forced to leave their homes.

From April, social housing tenants deemed to be under-occupying their properties will be charged an under-occupation penalty, which will be deducted from their housing benefit entitlements.

Riverside Housing, which manages 50,000 properties nationwide, says 24 per cent of its tenants who will be affected are searching for alternative accommodation, while 63 per cent intend to stay in their homes and pay the penalty.

The new levy, dubbed the "bedroom tax", is central to the government's welfare reform agenda, but has attracted criticism from housing associations and charities.

Under-occupied

The penalty will be applied to working age social housing tenants who are judged to be under-occupying their homes. Couples and children of the same sex are expected to share a room, as are any two children under 10 regardless of gender.

Tenants with disabilities will also be subject to the penalty, unless a bedroom is used by a non-resident carer who stays overnight.

Jayson and Charlotte Carmichael from Southport received a letter informing them they will be expected to contribute an additional £11.90 per week towards the cost of their two bedroom flat.

Charlotte suffers from spinal bifida and sleeps in a hospital-style bed which is designed especially for her condition, while Jayson sleeps in the second bedroom. The couple are now deemed to be under-occupying the property.

'Penalised'

The letter tells them their options are to pay the penalty, move to a smaller home or take in a lodger.

"It's so depressing," says Charlotte. "I have to sleep in this bed. I didn't ask to live like this."

"I'll have to give up bus travel," says Jayson. "And we'll have to cancel the television subscription.

"I don't know why we're being penalised. We're not under-occupying this flat. Charlotte needs to sleep in a hospital bed because she's severely disabled. We're already pushed for space with all the medical equipment. It's disgraceful."

Hardest hit in the north

The housing benefit changes are expected to hit hardest in the north of England, where there are fewer one and two bedroom properties available to social housing tenants.

It is predicted that 600,000 people will be affected nationwide, around 20 per cent of social housing tenants. However, in some parts of the North West more than 40 per cent of those in social housing will be subject to the penalty.

"Nobody wants to move, but some people have to because they simply won't be able to pay," says Christine Frazer from Riverside Housing.

"The problem is those that are moving to avoid the penalty need one and two bedroom flats and there just aren't the properties for them. We work so hard to build strong communities, but a quarter of people leaving all at once will tear them apart and there'll be more anti-social behaviour."

Hugh demand

According to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions around 600,000 one bedroom flats will be needed to accommodate tenants currently under-occupying larger homes, but national housing stocks for this kind of property stand at just 300,000.

In the Liverpool city region there are 10 potential tenants for each one bedroom flat that comes on the social housing market. Estimates suggest it will take seven to eight years to find smaller properties for those willing to downsize in this area, not taking into account new demand.

Councillor Karen Garrido, leader of the Conservative group on Salford Council, admits the process will take time. Her advice to those facing a long wait to be re-housed is to move into the private rental sector or take in a lodger. She insists social landlords will not evict tenants who cannot afford to pay the under-occupation penalty.

However, while Riverside Housing says it will do all it can to assist those who come into financial difficulty, it admits repeated failure to pay will result in tenants being evicted from their homes.