Branch Secretary : info@housingworkers.org.uk
  

Tenants and residents service charge ‘strike’

Residents frustrated

 

SHAC is a campaign group pulling together housing association residents and workers. It was initiated nu the Unite housing workers branch in the knowledge that the interests of residents and workers converge. There has been much negative publicity in the media about housing associations recently which underlines the importance of them organising to defend decent services. Local groups are now organising to withhold charges – Suzanne Muna SHAC secretary and Unite LE111 assistant secretary explains.

 

Tenants and residents from a wide variety of housing associations have agreed to hold a coordinated service charge ‘strike’ under the banner of the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC).

 

Action is being taken by residents frustrated at their landlords’ failings in relation to repeated extortionate and often erroneous service charges, disrepairs, shoddy maintenance, and cladding.

 

System of neighbourhood managers largely abandoned

 

Residents described how their problems are being compounded by the rockface they must climb when trying to resolve issues directly with their landlords. The system of neighbourhood managers has largely been abandoned in favour of call centres which are proving far less efficient and effective. Complaints are routinely lost, or remain unresolved for long periods, and callers must go through lengthy security questions each time they ring for an update. Some associations automatically ‘close’ a complaint once it has been running for a set period, regardless of whether it has been resolved or not, in order to meet arbitrary internal targets.

 

Residents also find approaching the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman largely futile. Cuts to their powers have rendered them largely unable to offer satisfactory protection or support. One member told of the Housing Ombudsman levying a fine of £100 against a landlord with a recorded turnover of £17 million. In another case, complaints by tenants about the slum conditions on their rundown London estate were ignored by both organisations for years. It took an ITV report to prompt the Regulator to begin the process of investigating the association.

 

Frustration

 

Housing association senior managers commonly show equal disregard for the intervention of MPs and councillors. Indeed, SHAC has received appeals for help from councillors and MPs frustrated at their inability to get a satisfactory response from the landlord.

 

Similarly, the legal system now offers little protection to tenants and residents. Legal aid is no longer available for many housing issues after it was cut by government to reduce costs. Poorer tenants and residents do not therefore have the financial resources to bring a case. The process also requires a level of commitment and capacity that can be hard to find for those working, studying, and trying to raise families.

 

Going to court is rarely a quick process and even where residents are able to successfully navigate the legal system, and achieve a ruling in their favour, there is no guarantee that the landlord will act. At a recent SHAC meeting, a housing barrister described having to go back to court repeatedly to enforce court orders against housing associations. These wealthy landlords often prefer paying the meagre fines to putting things right.

 

“I am in despair”

 

Tenants and residents thus increasingly conclude that withholding rent and/or service charge payments is the only way to get their landlord’s attention and achieve some genuine engagement.

 

“I am in despair as to how to stop these atrocious companies any other way. We’ve experienced diabolical rip-offs, incompetence and lies. They have damaged our lives for years and years. Many thousands of tenants across the sector experience endless failed attempts to get their problem sorted out. We are ground down.

 

“I honestly can’t see how anything other than withholding money is going to stop them. Even when the Social Housing White Paper is made law, I don’t believe that there is any other way to hold these massive, powerful corporations to account.”

 

The newly formed strike network has helped coordination across different landlords and provides practical resources and support. To date, a total of 17 housing associations are affected including some of the biggest in the country such as Clarion, L&Q, One Housing Group, Notting Hill Genesis, and Hyde. The strike is also national, involving tenants as far afield as Southampton, London, and Glasgow.

 

Rent (and service charge) strikes have been used successfully in the UK and elsewhere on a small-scale, periodic basis. However, with housing associations providing homes to three million people in Britain, if this tactic were to become widespread, it could trigger a rebalancing of the considerable inequality that currently concentrates power in the hands of housing association landlords and their institutional supports.

 

SHAC can be found at www.shaction.org or contacted on shac.action@gmail.com

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