Housing associations responsible for more than 175,000 homes are facing allegations of serial neglect of their residents and properties, focused on an array of new-build developments in London that have received more than £60m in public money.
The issues uncovered by a Guardian investigation include damp, mould, nonexistent security, outages in heating and hot water, inadequate repairs, and infestation by rats and mice. There are also many complaints about poor and often misleading customer service.
The investigation found issues with five housing associations: Catalyst, Sanctuary, Notting Hill Housing, Wandle, and the One Housing Group. Residents raised problems including:
- Failing lifts that rendered a wheelchair user housebound for a week and a half.
- Security failures that meant premises were open to intruders over a period of months.
- Families repeatedly left without heating or hot water.
The cases involve both tenants, and some among the rising numbers of people in London who live in shared-ownership properties in which housing associations retain a stake. Some of them also highlight alleged failings by big building firms.
Housing associations are not-for-profit organisations that have come to play a dominant role in social and so-called affordable housing. Critics say the findings raise concerns about standards in the new-build housing market, linked to the government’s ongoing drive to deregulate housing in the capital and the decision of many associations to concentrate on commercial property development.
The latest developments follow revelations in the Guardian about Orchard Village, a new estate in east London owned and run by Clarion Housing, the UK’s largest housing association, and funded by £30m of public money. Over the past three years, residents there have complained about a huge range of problems, many apparently related to poor building standards. Last month, after Clarion agreed to buy back some of the affected properties, the association’s chairman resigned.
In response to inquiries from the Guardian, a spokesperson for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said that in all the cases concerned, grants had been awarded by the previous mayor, Boris Johnson.
Steve Hilditch, a housing expert who has worked as the head of policy for Shelter and a housing adviser to the last Labour government, said the cases highlighted two linked trends. “There’s clearly something going wrong in the new-build housing market to do with standards, and it needs to be tackled,” he said.
He also saw a problem in the changing culture of many big housing associations. “The big housing associations have become massive developers. They’re expanding very quickly. To my mind, some of them have lost their focus on housing need, and managing their existing homes,” he said.
Catalyst Housing oversees more than 21,000 homes across London and the south-east. At its Caulfield Park development in south Acton, west London, which was completed in 2011 and assisted by £19.5m in grants from the Greater London Authority (GLA), residents say they have complained for five years about repeatedly broken lifts, infestation by rats and mice, and faulty plumbing.
Chris Babet, a Catalyst tenant who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, lives in a fifth-floor flat with his family. He says in early 2016 both lifts in his block broke down simultaneously and he was left housebound for a week and a half. He also says he requested electronic door-opening equipment from the housing association, which he needed to avoid his wheelchair being damaged by opening and closing doors, but that it only arrived after the intervention of his MP, 18 months after his initial request.
He says hot water in his family’s flat is often intermittent, at best. Though Willmott Dixon, the builders which constructed Caulfield Park, say “there are no openings left within walls and ceilings of individual properties following our work”, other residents say mice and rats get into their properties through such cavities, and that their presence results in a smell traceable to the animals’ urine and excrement, and noise they can hear in their flats. “In the evenings, you can hear them going through the ceilings and in the walls – just running around,” said Zakirya Mohammed, who has lived in his flat since 2012. “We’ve complained to Catalyst several times about this, and got nothing.”
Catalyst says it has come up with a “thorough action plan” for the development. A spokesperson told the Guardian: “On behalf of Catalyst, I’d like to apologise to the residents of Caulfield Park for any discomfort or inconvenience that they have experienced.”
Sanctuary is among the UK’s biggest housing organisations, with a portfolio that contains around 100,000 homes. At its Artizan Court development in Wood Green, north London, completed in 2014 and assisted by a Greater London Authority (GLA) grant of £1.9m, residents say that security issues, shabby building work and issues around leaks, damp and mould have been compounded by Sanctuary’s slow and sometimes misleading responses to their complaints.
Between December 2016 and February this year, after problems in a shared-ownership block with the main gate and front door, both failed, which left the development completely open. As well as intruders, some of whom were homeless people who took up temporary residence, residents say there were reports of people’s doors being tried in the small hours.
Sanctuary claimed that issues with security were a result of vandalism, which residents say does not answer their questions about why repairs have taken so long. “It took three months for the door to be fixed – it was vandalised once,” said one Artizan Court resident. Beyond an assurance that “if we haven’t met expectations, we will put things right ”, Sanctuary offered no direct answers to accounts of bad customer service, or poor building and plumbing standards.
In January, Sanctuary was confirmed as the single biggest recipient of government money under the new shared ownership and affordable homes programme, and is set to receive £90m of public funds between now and 2021. Last year, its chief executive, David Bennett, was paid £340,000.
Housing associations’ new commercial tilt is exemplified by Notting Hill Housing, which was founded in 1964, and now owns and runs about 32,000 homes. Like many housing associations, it now partly funds its operations via commercial property development. In 2007, it announced the completion of Carillon Court, a 51-flat development in Aldgate, east London. The Sunday Times claimed it had succeeded in “making small look sexy”.
Now, Carillon Court is the focus of a dispute involving residents, the housing association, and Bugler, the construction firm who built it. Residents began to complain about leaks and damp in 2009, when one resident claimed that “the property that I bought in good faith and paid a large sum of money for is now, I, believe uninhabitable … My health is suffering, not only due to the stress but also because of the damp.”
Among the other people affected are a family of seven living in a flat in which damp and mould are present in all but one room, who have serious concerns about resulting ill-health. Bugler construction say s it has not been notified of any problems since 2010. Notting Hill told the Guardian it was aware of “both latent defects and maintenance and repairs issues” and was working to remedy them.
One recent case involving a new-build development highlights many of the same issues. Solomon’s Passage, in Peckham, south London, was completed in 2010 and owned and run by Wandle, who oversee 7,000 homes across nine London boroughs. Last year, it was announced that two blocks containing 48 homes were to be demolished, because of issues including water damage and faulty roofs and balconies. The entire development attracted £9.4m of public money.
Wandle said it was working with its lawyers to ascertain who was legally responsible for what ha d happened. It said there remain ed “a huge amount of work to do” to bring the rest of the development up to a good standard . The GLA sa id that once the blocks ha d been demolished, it “will be able to recover” the relevant amount of public money.