An artist who bought a flat in a council-owned building is facing homelessness after his local authority asked him to pay almost £98,000 for repairs to the building.
Jamie Harris, 47, bought the lease 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 the responsibility. with the town hall for all construction work. He is now facing legal action unless he pays £97,860 and says he will have to sell his house to settle the bill.
“I didn’t know the apartment belonged to the town hall when I bought it,” he said. “I can’t work due to health issues and this bill has pretty much finished me off.”
Tenants in other areas of the local authority, including former tenants who bought their homes from the council, could face a similar bill shock as councils rush to renovate poor quality housing to meet the decent government housing standards. Campaigners say the scheme flouts right-to-buy legislation, which helps council tenants move up the property ladder and risks bankrupting low-income residents who buy property owned by the local authorities because they are more affordable.
Since municipal tenants are not liable for maintenance and repair costs, the bill for entire blocks is divided between any tenants on lease and the freehold owner of the community. Unlike residents of private buildings, local authority leaseholders do not have the right to decide on the scope and timing of proposed works or to request comparative quotes from contractors. Local councils often sign long-term agreements with private contractors who do not have to tender for every project, leading to accusations of corruption and overcharging.
Sebastian O’Kelly of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership campaign website, says he is contacted every week by residents facing financial ruin, including a 62-year-old nurse who was billed £146,000 for the renovation of three blocks on his municipal domain. ‘Part of the problem is council flats don’t have a reserve fund so bills can come out of nowhere,’ he said. “A London council has officials to deal with right-to-own sales and, across the desk, officials to buy up old council flats from tenants wiped out by major works bills. “
The problem is particularly serious in London, where former social flats may be the only affordable way for young professionals to buy a home. Residents can challenge unfair charges in first-tier court, but would have to pay a professional surveyor and legal representative to argue the case and, under tenancy law, they cannot claim charges from a freehold landlord , even if they win.
Tenants are footing the bill for years of underinvestment in the social housing stock, critics say. The Harris building was in very poor condition, despite the lease stipulating cyclical maintenance every five years. In 2015 he took out a loan after receiving a repair estimate of £20,000 from Lambeth Council, but the work was never undertaken.
Four years later he was told he was charged £98,000 for the same job, including a new roof and windows. Management fees and professional fees accounted for 16% of the cost. Lambeth Council told the Observer that a 2012 survey had underestimated the investment needed and that some projects had been postponed due to rising costs. He claimed the £20,000 estimate was based on a ‘desk exercise’ which was insufficiently costed.
Both quotes came from the council’s former long-term contractor, Mears Group, which was accused of poor workmanship and a backlog of unfinished work. Harris claims the new windows were installed incorrectly and leaks in the new roof damaged three of the apartments.
Bell Ribiero-Addy, Labor MP for the Harris constituency of Streatham, said tenants should have the right to vote on proposed projects, quotes and contractors before they have to foot the bill for substandard work. ‘I have received a number of cases and complaints about Mears’ appallingly poor work when they were sub-contractors for Lambeth,’ she said. “The bigger picture is a housing crisis exacerbated by years of falling social housing investment and the massive sale of social housing, coupled with other cuts that have left local authorities […] beholden to entrepreneurs whose first priority is too often to put shareholders before tenants.
Mears, whose contract with Lambeth was not renewed this year, said he was unaware of the outstanding issues with Harris’ building. A spokesperson said: ‘Mears and Lambeth councils have carried out a rigorous post-inspection process, with any repair work identified as necessary being dealt with prior to handover and payment.
Lambeth Council said: “We appreciate that major works can place a financial burden on tenants which is why we are offering a number of repayment options.” We encourage any tenant to discuss these options with us.
Harris says she was not offered a refund option and appealed to GofundMe to help raise funds. “It’s humiliating,” he said. “If I can’t find the money, I’ll have to sell the apartment and I just don’t see a way out.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Leveling Up said: ‘Tenants should not be faced with such exorbitant sums for repairs and we would expect fair reimbursement plans to be offered in such cases.