An artist who bought a flat in a council-owned block is facing homelessness after his local authority demanded he pay almost £98,000 for building repairs.
Jamie Harris, 47, bought the tenancy of a one-bedroom flat owned by Lambeth Council in 2007. Eight of the 10 flats in the converted Victorian villa are let to council tenants and, unbeknownst to him, he and the other tenant share responsibility. with the council for any construction work. He has now been threatened with legal action unless he pays £97,860 and says he will have to sell his home to pay the bill.
“I was unaware that the apartment belonged to the council when I bought it,” he said. “I can’t work because of health issues and this bill has pretty much finished me off.”
Tenants on other council properties, including former tenants who bought their home from the council, could face similar bill shocks as councils rush to renovate poor-quality homes to meet the government’s decent housing standards. Campaigners say the system makes a mockery of right-to-buy legislation, which helps council tenants onto the property ladder, and risks bankrupting low-income residents who buy local authority-owned properties because they are cheaper.
Since the municipality’s tenants are not responsible for maintenance and repair costs, the bill for entire blocks is shared between any tenants and the municipal freeholder. Unlike residents of privately owned buildings, council tenants have no right to determine the scope and timing of proposed works or to request comparative bids from contractors. Local councils often enter into long-term contracts with private contractors who do not have to tender for each project, leading to accusations of bribery and overcharging.
Sebastian O’Kelly, of the campaign website Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, says he is contacted every week by residents facing financial ruin, including a 62-year-old nurse billed £146,000 for refurbishment of three blocks on his council estate. “Part of the problem is that the council flats don’t have a reserve fund, so bills can come out of the blue,” he said. “A London council has officials dealing with right-to-buy sales and, on the other side of the desk, officials busy buying back former council flats from tenants wiped out by huge building bills.”
The problem is particularly acute in London, where former council flats may be the only affordable way for young professionals to buy a home. Residents can challenge unfair charges in a first instance court, but they must pay for a professional surveyor and a legal representative to make a case, and under the Tenancy Act they cannot claim costs from a freeholder, even if they win.
According to critics, it is tenants who pay the bill for many years of underinvestment in municipal housing stock. Harris’s building was in serious disrepair, despite the fact that the lease stipulated cyclical maintenance every five years. In 2015 he took out a loan after receiving a £20,000 repair estimate from Lambeth Council, but the work was never carried out.
Four years later he was notified of £98,000 for the same work, including a new roof and windows. Administration and professional fees made up 16% of the costs. Lambeth Council told Observer that a survey from 2012 had underestimated the need for investment and that certain projects were postponed as costs increased. It claimed the £20,000 estimate was based on a “desktop exercise” which was insufficiently costed.
Both quotes were from the council’s former long-term contractor, the Mears Group, which has been accused of poor workmanship and a backlog of unfinished jobs. Harris claims that the new windows have been poorly installed and that leaks in the new roof have damaged three of the apartments.
Bell Ribiero-Addy, Labor MP for Harris’ constituency of Streatham, said tenants should be given the right to vote on proposed projects, tenders and contractors before they have to foot the bill for substandard work. “I received a number of cases and complaints about Mears’ horribly poor work when they were contractors for Lambeth,” she said. “The bigger picture is a housing crisis exacerbated by years of falling investment in social housing and mass sales of social housing stock, combined with other cuts that have left local authorities […] is dependent on contractors whose first priority is too often putting shareholders ahead of tenants.”
Mears, whose contract with Lambeth was not renewed this year, said it was not aware of any outstanding issues with the Harris building. A spokesperson said: “Both Mears and Lambeth Council undertook a rigorous post-inspection process, with all identified remedial works required to be addressed prior to both handover and payment.”
Lambeth Council said: “We appreciate that major works can place a financial burden on tenants, which is why we offer a range of repayment options.” We encourage all tenants to discuss these options with us.”
Harris claims he has not been offered any repayment options and has launched a GofundMe appeal to help raise money. “It’s humbling,” he said. “If I can’t find the money, I’ll have to sell the apartment, and I simply can’t see a way out.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Leveling Up said: “Lease owners should not be faced with such extortionate amounts for repairs and we expect fair repayment plans to be offered in such cases.”