Social housing tenants with mushrooms growing from the walls of their tower block are refusing to pay their “extortionate” service charges in a stand off with their housing association landlord.
A group of 25 flats in Charles Dickens House in Bethnal Green, east London, say Tower Hamlets Community Housing (THCH) has not provided details of where their money is going and so they’ve decided to go on strike.
Collectively, the residents of the block pay £118,000 a year for a concierge service – a charge that has increased from £51,000 since 2019.
And they individually pay £1,192 a year for heating that is on all the time – even in summer months.
The block suffers leaks in communal hallways. On one floor, mushrooms grow out of the walls and paint bulges.
On the floor below, a family is forced to step over an empty ice cream tub they have placed in their doorway to catch dripping water.
Mustapha Gooh has suffered a series of leaks in his flat – including one that made his kitchen unusable.
A video from November shows water pouring through his kitchen ceiling. The leak has now been fixed, but he’s unhappy at how long it took.
Gooh, who works part-time as a bus and taxi driver, says the state of Charles Dickens house makes him reluctant to have people over.
“You feel disgusting when you have a visitor,” he tells The Big Issue. “When you worry about where you’re living, it’s difficult, you know.”
In the year to April 2022, Gooh paid £9.91 a week for heating. From April 2022, he is paying £33.53 a week.
Despite paying for heating that is on at all hours of the day, Gooh has his heaters turned off because his flat is already warm
On top of this, his weekly service charges are £37.70. He’s going on strike in a bid to see exactly how they are spent.
While residents are given a breakdown of how the charges are calculated, they want to see proof of that money being spent.
“If they show us the documentation and they go through everything then if there is no choice there is no choice. But they keep hiding it.”
THCH told The Big Issue it has “committed to providing more detailed information on the makeup of service charges.” It also said the strike would see tenants breach their tenancy agreement and “strongly encouraged” them to carry on paying.
Jakia Begum shares Gooh’s frustration over the heating charges – especially as the months grow warmer.
“I’m furious because from now to September we don’t need the heating. But we don’t have a choice.” Begum said.
“We pay £173 a month. Me and my family could be going on holiday. We could do something useful and productive for ourselves, but we’re paying THCH that money.”
She’s also dismayed at the soaring charges. For one flat in 2018/19, the overall charges were £20.53 a week. Now they are £37.70.
This includes £33,299 for caretaking and cleaning. But Begum points to spots in communal halls where she believes this is failing, such as the mushrooms and the leaks.
The strikers are organised by Hussain Ismail, who lives in a different THCH-run property in the borough.
Getting residents to organise has had the side-effect of people getting to know their neighbours. But, Ismail stresses, the increasing costs are pushing people out of Tower Hamlets.
“People born here, second or third generation, are having to lower their expectations,” he says.
“Someone’s making money from this situation. We want to find out what benefit they’re getting.”
Faced with a difficult situation – Begum speaks of stress at trying to save money on shopping, and balancing campaigning with caring for her children – there is determination.
“I am not gonna give up. I am not gonna pay this service charge,” she says.
A THCH spokesperson told The Big Issue: “A small number of residents have notified us of their intention to begin a service charge strike, we have responded to each of them individually and have committed to providing more detailed information on the makeup of service charges as has been requested.
“Any residents planning on not paying their rent or service charge will be placing themselves in breach of their tenancy agreement, so we would strongly encourage them to continue to pay.
“We do not make a profit from our service charges. Our estimate is directly linked to the increased cost to deliver that service. We’ve all experienced a significant increase in energy prices, which has, unfortunately, had the biggest impact on our communal utilities charge.
“We understand it’s been a challenging time, especially with the rising cost of living. If a resident is experiencing genuine financial hardship, we have dedicated support available and have communicated the available support to all residents.
“We do recognise that there have been ongoing resident frustrations at Charles Dickens House, and we’re sorry for this. We have been working hard to resolve the issues residents have raised. We meet regularly with residents and leaseholders to keep them informed about progress and to listen to their concerns. The most recent of these meetings was on 28 March 2022.”