By Yasmin Barnes*, a Northcourt resident
This article was for SHAC was promised in July, not long after a meeting between our MP and the chief executive of our landlord, MTVH, over incorrect service charges; a complaint that had already dragged on for ten months.
We delayed sending it because we thought it might be best to wait until this year’s service charge accounts arrived. I’d really like to tell you we were successful, and that everything went smoothly. That the accounts were on time and, more importantly, were financially correct. Maybe this has happened in a parallel universe somewhere, sadly not in ours.
Our MP just happens to be The Right Honourable Michael Gove Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Given that his department oversees the two agencies that regulate and fund housing associations, you would think that North Court residents would have an advantage in having Michael Gove as our constituency MP when he intervened on our behalf. We thought that too. Michael Gove and the executive of MTVH probably believed it.
We had several complaints back in July, and suggestions on how the service could be improved. The number one priority for us was to receive correct, timely financial information, with more details than was contained in the measly five lines they usually provide on the service charge accounts.
Michael Gove MP joins a Zoom meeting between the MTVH executives and the residents of the North Court estate
We wanted more information and for them to adhere to their legal obligations to provide an invoice pack within 30 days of our request. We wanted them to speak to us about our complaint.
At the meeting between North Court residents, Michael Gove, and MTVH, they agreed to everything. Some of what we asked for was already MTVH policy, but they told us that something, somewhere had broken down. They insisted that there was nothing wrong with their complaints process. We begged to differ.
The Brutal Reality
Fast forward to midday Saturday 30 September 2023 and all hell breaks loose at North Court. The 2022/23 actual service charges have landed. It’s that time of year again for so many of us. One that is familiar to all who pay a service charge.
My phone blew up with messages from residents. They had received their service charge bills and they included over £2,100 in balancing charges, and in some cases demands for upwards of £700. There was also a new charge for ground rent – something we’d never paid before.
Some residents were in tears wondering how they could afford the extra on top of what we already pay. We’ve all absorbed hefty balancing charges this year, and know that we face another set of rises in April.
Some residents will have to re-negotiate their mortgages while interest rates are still very high. Added to this are increased costs for the fire safety regulation work. We have no idea of how much this will cost us in years to come.
SHAC receives regular complaints about MTVHA overcharges. Some have prompted service charge strikes including those at Royal Mint Court and East Ferry Road.
A further battle ensued. At one point we were sending around nine emails a week to MTVH, copying Michael Gove. We submitted complaints and had more conversations with senior executives when we could get through.
One thing is certain. Michael Gove can be under no illusions now that the housing association complaints system is working.
We have been told that apologies are on their way from MTVH and a correct version of our service charges accounts. We aren’t holding our breath, and we will keep fighting. My advice to all tenants and residents is to do the same.
Advice to Other Service Charge Challengers
It can be difficult to challenge inaccurate service charges. You learn as you go along, so we have set out some of our tips to help others going through it for the first time.
- Check and double check the estimates from the actuals. If you have doubts about what you are being charged for, write to the housing association, and ask.
- Don’t pay until you’re sure. Read up on your legal rights as residents or tenants. Read your lease agreement.
- Use your limited legal rights under Section 21 and Section 22 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 if they apply to you.
- Involve your MP. We copied ours into all correspondence for information because it saves you from having to explain from scratch when the inevitable problems arise.
- We also found it important to have a plan of action. If you don’t get a response; write, complain, complain again then go to the Housing Ombudsman if you aren’t satisfied.
- Pace yourself. Nothing is quick. There seems to be no fast track in getting problems solved, it can take months.
- Get organised and collectivise. Talk to your neighbours and find out what costs they have been sent. We set up a private group on Facebook for residents to share information, and WhatsApp works too.
- Pool your resources and skills. Find out who has time and IT, legal, or financial skills. Check what other residents are posting on Twitter (X) and Facebook about your landlord, and make contact with them if they share the same problems.
- Join SHAC or other housing groups. It’s also handy to read the websites of the Housing Ombudsman, and the Regulator of Social Housing.
Many housing associations work on the basis that 80% of residents won’t question the charges, it’s almost like a mafia numbers game. As long as some pay, it’s a win for them.
The new ground rent charge on our accounts amounts to a total of £14,554.63 across our estate. We don’t believe this is a legitimate charge, and we will continue to challenge it, and the other unjust charges.
If residents and tenants make enough noise about service charge abuse, if we make it a problem for our political representatives, we won’t be ignored forever. There is hope for all of us. Don’t give up.
* Not her real name
Advice, guides and resources are also available on SHAC’s help pages.
18 October 2023
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