A report from a from a successful collective dispute over rent in our housing association

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borzoj
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Jun 29 2012 19:23
A report from a from a successful collective dispute over rent in our housing association

I live in a house in a small cul-de-sac of around twenty houses, all belonging to a housing association. The place was built as a small HA development in the 90s, which eventually went bust, and at the moment we are a part of L&Q, one of the few large HAs that run increasing part of the 'affordable' housing in London.

Our contract has a clause about variable service charges, but the tenants were never actually charged those. I have only lived here for a year, but I know that since L&Q took over the development three years ago they have been trying to start charging and mostly for stuff they did not actually do. Some residents complained on their own and usually they were successful.

Last year we were given separate refuse bin for each of the houses and in April this year we were given updated rent statement, with service charges of £3 a week, all due to 'refuse equipment hire'. A bin like that is around £35 in B&Q.

Initially we complained with my girlfriend and the charges were reduced to £0.13 a week for 'bulk refuse collection', obviously a made up charge as it was not in the initial breakdown and also the council collects bulk waste for free. From talking to neighbours we learnt that one other complained and was successful as well, but charges were only reduced for the houses who complained.

With a help of one other neighbour we organised a meeting, 1/3 of the residents turned up, probably because it was Bank Holiday. It was an utter mess, everyone talked about every possible issue with the association, and there are few and we don't agree on all of them. Luckily, in the last five minutes we agreed on writing a collective letter about the charges. We wrote it, again with the help of the neighbour, we collected the signatures of all but one tenant. It took a month and a number of phone calls to get a response. In it, all residents had all service charges withdrawn for the year 2011/2012. The association also clearly stated that the charges are variable and zero is for this year only.

It was our first foray into organising of that sort. Even in a simple case, were all that is asked for is a signature and the benefit of signing is clear, it wasn't easy to get everyone to sign. But we won and also we know each other better in the community, so it's good in more than one way.

The charges were made up and HA are in complete mess in that department, every letter from them had a different amount, one officer didn't know what others did and so on. I'm sure if they got their act together they could find something to charge us for. It is clear that we won not so much because of the legalities, but because we stood together and made our demand collectively.

Finally, we are in social housing. I'm not sure what it will look like if the Tories got all the changes they want, but at the moment rent is controlled, it is increasing above inflation, but by a fixed and not to high percentage. Considering what is happening with rent in private sector, I'm sure L&Q are not happy about that. The charges are uncapped and it is clear to me that what they are doing is just a thin end of a wedge, a mean to subvert the rent controls by massively over charging for services.

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Red Marriott
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Jun 29 2012 21:31

This is quite common, borzoj; as annual rent rises are capped according to the formula you mention, HAs try to bump up the service charges - which aren't capped.

Councils have in recent years started the same game - their rents didn't used to separate the service charges from the general rent, but for the same reason they've started 'depooling', ie making a separate charge for services.

The overcharging is usually worse in blocks and on estates where there's a whole range of charges for lighting, cleaning, refuse, gardening, caretaking, maintenance etc. Tenants should compare carefully what they're being charged for and what services they actually get - and challenge the ripoffs that are regularly attempted by some of these oh-so-respectable HA landlords (who are registered as charities, despite often having branches that deal exclusively in property speculation for profit).

For likely effects of changes to social housing see here; http://libcom.org/news/demolition-social-housing-29062011

martinh
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Joined: 8-03-06
Jun 30 2012 16:11

As Red says there's a lot of this "de-pooling" going on, all linked to the last Labour govt's war on social housing. Most of the good stuff is now gone, and most of the easy stock transfers are done. Labour perceived that tenants vote no to stock transfers because housing associations have higher rents, so implemented a policy of getting council rents to converge with HA ones (guess what, nearly all went up!).

A couple of things worth considering - if there are leaseholders in your block check they are being charged the same - leasehold accounts for councils have to be audited and available so if they are being charged less you need to ask why. It's also worth asking if any charges are eligible for housing benefit - if they are not and it is not a service you've asked for, then it is something that ought to be paid for from your council tax and in effect you're being charged twice.

Well done anyway and hopefully the next time they try something you'll be better able to fight it.

Martin

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cantdocartwheels
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Joined: 15-03-04
Jul 1 2012 09:20

all sounds good

you should have a bbq/picnic to celebrate if theres some common space you can use

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plasmatelly
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Jul 1 2012 09:28
Quote:
you should have a bbq/picnic to celebrate if theres some common space you can use

Good idea - keeping up the spirit is key. (also, can I come? wink )

borzoj
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Joined: 11-07-11
Jul 2 2012 08:38

thanks for all the comments.
@martinh there are no leaseholders, we are all tenants, and this info about housing benefit, i'm sure that will be useful in the future/