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Riverside Housing: campaigning to reduce tenants rights

SHAC reveals leaked documents on response to disrepair

 

The callous priorities of housing association bosses were exposed last week in shocking leaked documents as disrepair in social housing hit the headlines. The documents revealed by SHAC, the housing association tenant and resident network initiated by the Unite housing branch, underline the need for change in the sector. Riverside, a housing association which recently reported a bumper surplus, appears to have responded to a rise in disrepair cases by seeking to reduce tenant rights.

 

 

New housing minister Michael Gove used his first Tory conference in the job to accuse social landlords of presiding over “scandalously poor” housing conditions. That is stunning hypocrisy given that the Tories have been in government since 2010 and drastically cut funding for social housing, deregulated social housing providers as well as reducing support for tenants and residents to have a voice in the running of their landlords. The terrible conditions in some social housing are not in doubt, but his government has prioritised private property and financial interests over people in social housing, their responsibility is clear. However, far from standing up for social housing, housing association bosses have been willing accomplices of the government in entrenching financialisaton.

 

Impossible to enforce rights

 

Documents reveal that Riverside housing has formed a coalition of housing associations working to reduce the ability of residents to enforce legal rights in disrepair cases. In February 2021, documents reveal that Riverside executives discussed a sharp rise in the number of tenants and residents taking them to court over disrepairs and uninhabitable homes. Most of the claims were settled out of court suggesting they were genuine cases of disrepair that residents had not been able to resolve through internal processes.

 

Riverside bosses did not think that the priority was to reduce disrepair. They pointed the finger of blame toward “unscrupulous Clams Management Companies who harvest claims via door knocking and leaflet drops”. In their view, “the biggest opportunity to arrest this epidemic would be for a fixed fee cap to be introduced in terms of claimants’ legal costs – making Housing Condition claims a less attractive proposition”. In other words, the aim is to make financially impossible for tenants and residents to enforce their legal rights.

 

Avoiding responsibility

 

In their paper Riverside bosses note “political risk factors when campaigning around this issue”. As they rightly say, “[The] legislation is designed to protect tenants from irresponsible landlords and unsafe living conditions… Any action to limit their right to hold their landlords to account, could be considered as disadvantaging social housing tenants… it could be seen that [housing associations] are looking to avoid their responsibility to their tenants and allow them to live in unfit homes.”

 

Rather than working together to end disrepair in the sector, a coalition of associations including, Torus, Onward, Shepherds Bush, The Regenda Group, Prima Group, For Housing and Salix Homes has come together to reduce tenants’ effective rights. Did they consult tenants and residents? Or local councillors and MPs? Unite housing workers and SHAC argue that social housing landlords should be made democratically accountable to their residents and the obsession with the priorities of banks and financial institutions broken. Solving the disrepair crisis will require fundamental change.

 

Higher surpluses

 

Front line workers can often see the problems created by new style bosses very clearly, but their voices count for little. The Riverside documents show staff in the care and support side of the business felt they were made to work to unrealistic deadlines, usually because there were not enough of them. For example, one staff member was quoted as saying: “The loss of caretakers across supported services has had a massive impact on operational teams… at the same time the severity and complexity of customer needs is increasing, and staff are having to choose whether to support a customer or clean a toilet…” Repairs and maintenance works were unnecessarily costly and poorly managed. Staff were made to travel for miles just to carry out simple fire alarm tests for example, pointlessly increasing the final service charge bill to tenants and residents.

 

A worker reported that Riverside’s compliance procedures were a mess, that communication was non-existent, and that the organisation must be “haemorrhaging cash”. Concerns that are corroborated by SHAC’s revelations about the boards decision making on gas safety compliance. Workers said that repairs were left unresolved for so long that the structures, fixtures, and fittings of homes had deteriorated by the time the work was carried out. There was also a lack of cyclical decoration investment in properties to make sure that they stayed in good condition. One worker asked, “Why all the pressure to make higher surpluses and not see this reinvested into our supported housing stock, what are we paying for?”

 

The 'appalling' conditions at the Eastfields Estate in Mitcham, which is run by Clarion Housing and exposed on TV, are not unique. It is is clear that problems cannot be blamed on individual workers, they reflect management priorities.

 

Front line workers in the housing sector often express frustration at the priorities of their bosses. This was part of the impulse behind the Unite housing branch initiative in setting up SHAC, there is a common interest in fighting for social housing organisations to be run for people in working class communities and listen to their staff. More broadly, we need serious investment in high quality, sustainable social housing; the current financialised model has been a disaster.

 

10 October 2021

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