Our absurd and unexpected balancing charge from One Housing Group (OHG) has effectively doubled our service charges for 2021–22.
I am one of a group of residents living on the One Stratford estate. One Housing Group (now part of Riverside Group) is the freeholder for some of our homes. They recently and unexpectedly sent a balancing charge bill averaging around £3,000 per flat. A balancing charge is effectively an additional sum intended to cover an alleged shortfall in the previous year’s service charge.
If huge, unexpected costs like this are going to keep coming up, in addition to the constantly rising and unsustainable service charges, I don’t think I can see a future living here. I am being priced out of my home, but cannot sell due to cladding and high service charges. I am stuck with the prospect of bankruptcy, eviction and homelessness.
The experiences of One Stratford residents echoes the findings of research by SHAC and Find Others on service charge abuse across the housing association sector
As well as OHG residents, our block has a number of flats owned by private company Haus. The Haus and OHG flats are of identical size and construction. Yet comparisons between OHG and Haus service charge bills showed that OHG, a social landlord, is charging in some cases £2,000 more per year than Haus for comparable flats.
The Haus residents’ balancing charge was much lower, at around £500 per flat. It is still too much, but the difference is inexplicable.
The chart illustrates the service charge rises inflicted on the One Stratford residents of John Wetherby Court, and the impact of additional balancing charges
In most cases, the balancing charge has effectively doubled the OHG residents’ service charges, which add up to around £6,000 to £7,000 per year for a two-bedroomed flat, or around £4,500 per year for a single-bedroomed flat.
Residents querying the charges have been told they were due to ‘unexpected’ costs and that the charges are still based on estimates. They were also told to pay their additional top-up in a single lump sum and were sent threatening letters about arrears. The letter contained a diagram of the legal process OHG could use against us.
This shows a shocking disregard for the real-world financial challenges that people are facing. My neighbour Kath* for example said:
I am living hand to mouth despite working a full-time job. I’m worried about providing for my young child and have extremely poor mental health as a direct result of what is happening. I also have a chronic fatigue condition and have been unwell with a prolonged flare up since receiving the letter with the balancing charges.”
Kath*, OHG resident
The charge arrived in the post around two weeks after we met with OHG and Haus to discuss unreasonably high service charges. Yet representatives from OHG had disgracefully failed to mention that another hefty bill was on its way. These constant betrayals have destroyed any trust that me and my neighbours once had in OHG.
The financial uncertainty of not knowing how large charges will be, and what unexpected charges might pop up, is also taking its toll on people.
Whenever I receive a letter from One Housing, I experience anxiety and feel overwhelmed. The uncertainty of its content triggers anxiety, and it becomes a source of stress. It is challenging trying to cope with the anticipation of what the letter may entail, and it affects my emotional well-being.”
Paola*, OHG resident
Paola is unable to sell her flat due to the high charges combined with unsafe cladding. The strain has put an unbearable burden on her relationship with her partner. And the constant stress is disrupting all our lives.
I nearly canceled my holiday in July because I was so stressed about the £3k+ random charges that I got sent just before I left. I was supposed to go away for my birthday in August this year, and haven’t booked anything as I’m too tired from the stress of this all”
Clara*, OHG resident
This situation has been going on for years. OHG does not clearly explain its service charges. Residents on our estate have spent the past four years trying to get invoice packs to identify which charges are legitimate.
Two residents have had complaints upheld by the Housing Ombudsman, but OHG ignored their findings and failed to comply with the Ombudsman’s instructions. In the end, we decided that the only way forward was to withhold payments unless OHG had proved to us that they were genuine.
Residents Make a Stand
Around 30 residents of the One Stratford estate are on a partial service charge strike. The majority of us are withholding one third of our 2023 increase and all balancing charges. A further five households are withholding their 2021–22 balancing charge. We will continue doing so until we are satisfied that all costs being passed on to us are reasonable and justified.
We are being supported in our action by SHAC which offers advice and support to those withholding payment of rent or service charges in response to a dispute with their housing association landlord. More details are available here.