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Housing

These pensioners are on a rent strike over surging service charges

People living in over-55s accommodation in Oxford have seen their service charges surge by 76 per cent – and they have had enough.

A group of pensioners in Oxford have become the country’s oldest rent rebels after going on strike over surging service charges at their over-55s accommodation.

Elderly residents from Harris Court and Drew House in the Summertown area of the city are withholding rent and fees from landlord GreenSquareAccord in protest against rises that have seen some charges increase up to eight times.

The group is now one month into action against the landlord after organising with rent union Acorn. Michael Ryan, a 79-year-old former sailor who has lived at the property for 15 months, told The Big Issue people living in the properties are opposing the rises due to complaints that they have been left with no hot water for days at a time.

GreenSquareAccord told The Big Issue the two parties have now met to resolve the dispute and the service charge rises were the only “fair and ethical” way to pass on the increased costs of maintaining the property.

“GreenSquareAccord is supposed to be a charitable organisation and this doesn’t look like charity to me in any way, shape, or form,” said retired Oxford graduate Ryan. 

“Normally the increases aren’t that big. They’re restricted by the housing ministry rules to CPI plus one per cent for the basic rent, which they have done to the maximum. But the service charges have gone up a total of 76 per cent which is quite a stretch.

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“We think it’s a sort of backdoor way of increasing the rent. So the whole rent has gone up 16.5 per cent, which is a big jump for people who haven’t got much money. Of course we’re worried for the future. If they effectively put the rate up this amount every year it won’t take long at all for the rent to have doubled.”

There is a mix of tenants living in the properties, with some retired and living off a pension, others still in work and some receiving housing benefit.

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Ryan claimed the service charge rises the residents are experiencing are excessive.

He said residents have been hit with a charge of £8 a week for ‘intelligent electrics’, which covers the electronic door system and fire alarms, since April. Before the rise they were paying just £1.

Tenants have also taken issue with ‘management administration’ charges that have increased by 82 per cent while the cost of lighting communal areas has increased by 110 per cent, Ryan said.

As well as dealing with the costs, people are fed up with the condition of the property they are paying for.

rent strike Oxford
Older residents have joined forces with young campaigners from rent union ACORN to take on their landlord. Image: ACORN Oxford

“We have a communal boiler and over and again it’s failed,” Ryan told The Big Issue.

“We had six days in a row of no hot water at one stage. It doesn’t sound much but little old ladies are having to take kettles of hot water to the bath, which is dangerous. And it takes about 10 kettles to form a bath sufficiently like that. It’s not good.”

The group are not the only ones who have seen service charges soar across the country as the cost of living crisis continues to take hold.

Residents at Charles Dickens House in Bethnal Green have gone on strike after seeing the charge they pay for a concierge service balloon to £118,000 a year – up £51,000 since 2019.

Meanwhile, tenants on the East Ferry Road estate in Isle of Dogs and Capworth Court in Leyton, both east London, are also among the groups taking action across the country in recent weeks according to the Social Housing Action Campaign.

SHAC’s Suzanne Muna said: “We believe that all landlords should be legally obliged to justify every penny taken from tenants and residents, and SHAC is calling for fundamental reform of the service charge system.”

But few of the rent rebels are in over-55s accommodation, according to Ryan.

rent strike Oxford
The advice from residents to people in dispute with their landlord was clear: organise. Image@ ACORN Oxford

“We think that quite a number of other GreenSquareAccord groups of flats are in the same situation,” said Ryan. “But a lot of them are scared, they feel a fear of the landlord or fear of a power group if you like. Without knowing exactly what would happen, they feel that they would be treated badly. And so they don’t like to do what we’re doing and make a fuss.

“There has been a lot of interest and they are starting to take a bit of notice of us. Get a group together, organise and do the same as we’re doing.”

A GreenSquareAccord spokesperson said tenants were given a detailed breakdown of the rises four weeks before they came into effect and the two parties have now met to resolve the dispute.

“The increase to service charges at Harris Court and Drew House directly reflect significant increases to the cost of providing services at the buildings and investment we have made, which includes new fire safety measures we introduced following consultation with our customers,” the spokesperson said.

“We understand the cost of living crisis is putting more pressure on our customers than ever. GSA is a not-for-profit organisation which is faced with the same economic pressures and increased costs, and we have a duty to the tens of thousands of people to whom we provide housing and support across the country to make sure that we operate sustainably. 

“When the cost of providing services to a particular building increase, the only fair and ethical way to recover those costs is to pass them on directly to those who benefit from them.”

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