Shocking evidence from a whistleblower has confirmed the suspicions of tenants and residents, namely that housing associations (HAs) are not just overcharging them for services, but that the overcharging is deliberate.
For almost as long as SHAC has been operating, HA tenants and residents have been reporting problems with service charges. This is where tenants and residents are billed separately for services, and by law, the charges should relate only to services actually delivered.
Widely and Deeply Problematic
To understand the depth and scale of the problem, SHAC methodically surveyed members, and subsequently published two reports. The investigations exposed high levels of fraudulent charges, incorrectly apportioned costs, inconsistencies, super-inflationary increases, double-charging, and extortionate billing.
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Tenants and residents attempting to ensure that they only pay what is genuinely due find their requests for invoices and other evidence meet resistance, delays, and refusals by landlords.
A war of attrition is being waged annually by landlords on thousands of tenants and residents across Britain. For many, the battle becomes a looping nightmare, and even success can still mean enduring an excruciatingly slow wait for refunds to appear in bank accounts.“Sue, Clarion tenant
The SHAC x FindOthers ‘Request a Service Charge Breakdown’ tool has provided ample evidence of the problem. Since the launch of the tool, housing association residents have reported almost £2 million in suspected overcharges. Since its launch in November 2022, only 1% of users have received a satisfactory response from their landlord.
The impact on victims can be psychologically and financially devastating. The stress of constant worry about affordability, and regular attrition with HA staff, can cause mental health problems, physical illness, and relationship breakdown.
Service charges do not fall directly within the remit of the Regulator of Social Housing, and, unlike social rents, the amounts that can be charged by landlords are not subject to a government cap.
The First Tier (Property) Tribunal will accept claims relating to service charges, but coverage is patchy, and access to justice is fraught with problems.
The lack of institutional solutions has led many tenants and residents to take their experiences to the press, but landlords consistently deny systematic and deliberate overcharging. HAs and their apologists imply that such instances are just occasional malfunctions which inevitably occur in a large, complex system.
SHAC’s research shows that they are not.
Elliott Dennahy reported that his Peabody service charges were “excessive and unjustified”, describing the situation as “his worst nightmare” (FT 15.3.23). Peabody acknowledged that the service charging system needed to improve, but claimed that they “do all [they] can to ensure they are accurate and reasonable.”
Similarly when Michael Savell was interviewed by the BBC having successfully recouped more than £400,000 for tenants and residents on his Optivo (now Southern) estate, Optivo refused to acknowledge a systemic problem. Instead, they blamed inaccuracies on one of their predecessor landlords (BBC 15.12.22).
In Ed Spencer’s case, also speaking to the BBC, his landlord One Housing Group (now Riverside) insisted that the charges were correct, but that they conveniently “no longer held the records” that would prove it. (BBC 15.12.22).
But now, a whistleblower has provided evidence to SHAC which demonstrates that one of the largest HAs in the UK is knowingly overcharging tenants and residents. The effects of this landlord’s deliberate actions are identical to scores of other reports made to SHAC. It is logical to conclude that if the symptoms are identical, the root causes are also the same.
Blowing the Whistle
In February, SHAC was approached by a managing agent company that is sub-contracted to collect service charges on behalf of an HA, as is common across the sector. In this instance, the managing agent is entirely independent of the landlord. This is not however always the case. For example, Leeds Jewish Housing Association uses a managing agent company that employs staff also employed by Leeds Jewish which contracts its services.
The company that approached SHAC asked to blow the whistle and expose the landlord’s attempts to deliberately overcharge their tenants and residents.
Of the many examples, one comes in the form of Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs). These checks are done every two years, but the landlord initially insisted on the charge being added to bills annually, double-charging tenants and residents.
It took nine months of resistance by the managing agents before the landlord eventually conceded that the charges should only apply in the years that the checks are actually carried out.
In this case, the landlord eventually dropped its unjustified demand, but SHAC has received evidence from other tenants and residents which exactly mirrors this scenario. In those cases, other managing agents have either failed to challenge the demand, or the cost has been levied directly by the HA without going through a managing agent.
Fluid Fire Safety Costs
In fact, only a minority of landlords pass the cost of FRAs on to tenants as it is not commonly regarded as a service, although the legality of this has never been tested.
The managing agent in this case found that when the HA passed on FRA costs to tenants and residents, they used a supplier charging £600 for tests. By contrast, when the landlord absorbed the costs, they used suppliers providing an identical service but charging between £200 and £300.
If landlords just pass on the costs to tenant and residents, they have no incentive to secure good value for money.
Elsewhere, the managing agent reported that smoke alarms for one property were being tested weekly. The landlord charged an additional £22 per month for the tests, and extended the charge to other properties on the estate, even though they were not receiving weekly tests.
The affected properties have now been fitted with a new, more centralised alarm system which needs servicing twice a year, at a cost of £800, which tenants will have to pay.
It later transpired that the HA had failed to brief the consultants that all the homes had external fire escapes, and the consultant had bizarrely failed to notice this for themselves. This led them to conclude that people in the properties had no alternative escape route if the front doors were within the danger zone. The landlord therefore commissioned a more regular (and thus more costly) testing regime.
The managing agent has questioned whether such sophisticated alarms are necessary where adequate fire escapes exist, and why it costs an extortionate £400 for a ‘service’ that just involves setting off the alarms to see whether they work.
Unjustified and Unspecified Charges
A second example was when the landlord installed emergency lighting at a small block of flats. The light was set to stay on at all times, wasting electricity and resulting in an unnecessarily large bill. When the lights were retro-fitted with a motion sensor, the landlord sought to charge around £500 for the work, claiming that it was a repair, and tried to add a levy for the work to the weekly service charge.
On another part of the estate, three flats were billed around £150 for an unspecified service. The use of vague terminology which fails to inform tenants and residents what they are being charged for is increasingly common.
All of these accounts triangulate with SHAC’s own research and with evidence that continues to flow from tenants and residents. Our members have long suspected that this form of financial abuse is the purposeful creation of an additional income stream for HAs, and their suspicions now appear justified. HAs collect approximately £1.5 billion in service charges annually.
In the financial or retail sectors, inaccuracies are remedied as soon as they are identified but this doesn’t happen in the HA sector. Instead, ‘customers’ meet resistance and intransigence whenever they attempt to remedy problems, underscoring the deliberation that has gone into overcharging.
SHAC continues to work with tenants and residents, and campaigns to #EndServiceChargeAbuse. Tenants and residents concerned about service charges, whether paying directly or through benefits, should visit SHAC X FindOthers End Service Charge Abuse campaign here.
A growing number of tenants and residents are also choosing to withhold service charge payments where they consider them unreasonable or inaccurate. See more here.
If you work for a housing association or managing agent operating on behalf of a housing association, and have information about service charge abuse that you would like to share, SHAC can guarantee complete anonymity. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
24 March 2023
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SHAC Report on the Abuse of the Service Charge System by Housing Associations
SHAC Housing Association Service Charge Issues and Impact Report
Financial Times (FT) 15 March 2023
The BBC 22 December 2022