A London council has been accused of “pushing coronavirus victims over the edge” after it told dozens of residents they face unexpected repair bills for up to £118,000. Some say they will be left penniless as a result.
Seventy-six leaseholders on the Noel Park estate received letters from Haringey council, which owns the freehold on their homes, with notice of major works costing from £56,277 to £118,000 for works including new bathrooms.
Many of the residents face precarious financial circumstances already because of the Covid-19 outbreak, with some having recently lost their jobs.
Only weeks before they received the so-called section 20 notices, they were told at a meeting that the council “did not have visibility” on the costs to each resident.
About 30 of the leaseholders who received letters on 21 September have joined a campaign group set up to fight the plans. Of the 17 notices seen by the Guardian, the average cost was £86,000, with seven residents facing costs of over £100,000. They said the notices had resulted in sleeplessness, anxiety, family tensions, and depression.
“I’ve not been able to eat, drink, sleep, think straight,” said Julie Chambi, who was given an estimate of £107,000 for repairs and told she would have to repay at a rate of £3,000 a month if she wanted a council loan. She and her husband were both furloughed and while he has gone back to 50% hours she is still not working.
“I can’t function. I don’t know who to turn to,” she said.
Homes for Haringey, which manages the Labour council’s housing stock, told leaseholders it realised this was a “large amount of money”. One council official told resident Sarah, whose notice set out estimated costs of £108,450, that they “would have fainted” if they’d received the letter.
While the notice told leaseholders that “you must let us know within 14 days how you intend to pay your invoice”, after the Guardian sought comment the council said the first bills would not be due until 2022. Cabinet member for housing Emina Ibrahim said in a statement: “We need to be clear that this is not a bill to our leaseholders.”
After the Guardian’s request for comment, leaseholders – who say that officials had previously been unresponsive to requests for clarity – received a letter apologising “for any distress or misunderstanding” and saying that the notice “was NOT an invoice, nor a bill or a request for payment in the next 14 days”.
Ibrahim repeated that apology but said the costs could not be avoided, adding: “We are improving housing conditions for 242 residents in the Noel Park area and this will benefit a number of council tenants. We appreciate this will be costly, but we cannot expect our tenants to pay the cost of people who own these homes.”
The extraordinary notices, issued under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, were described by Sebastian O’Kelly of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership as a “particularly extreme” example of how section 20 of the act affects leaseholders. Other cases in recent years include a nurse given a £146,000 repair bill for his two-bedroom flat in a council tower block in Southwark and 50 leaseholders in Oxford given £50,000 bills each.
The Noel Park residents are facing such high costs because of the need to replace bathroom “pods”, temporary structures erected in the 1970s that are already about 20 years past their intended lifespan. The replacement units will also be temporary. In a 2015 report for the council released after a freedom of information request, estate agents Savills said leaseholders “could face bills up to £43,000” as well as ancillary costs and inflation.
The works are being carried out alongside repairs to the fabric of the buildings, which have been questioned by residents.
Sarah, who was on maternity leave when coronavirus hit, said she was “absolutely floored” by the news. She said her freelance income as a sustainable fashion consultant and educator has dried up during lockdown.
She and her partner Michael – the couple asked not to use their last names – are relying on his part-time childcare job to support their baby daughter. Their £108,450 estimate came after they were previously told to expect a bill of about £25,000.
“I cannot express how much anguish this is causing us,” said Michael. “We will lose our home. We will be ruined.”
“This level is devastating,” said another resident, Ewan MacDonald, who received an estimate of almost £90,000. “[The council] completely torpedoed our financial future. And on top of it all they’re pushing coronavirus victims over the edge.”
Some residents have consulted estate agents who say their properties are now effectively worthless.
Kirsten Lowe, a social worker facing an estimate of £107,000 on a property she bought for £211,000 in 2013, sought to remortgage her home but was told it was not worth anything.
She had hoped owning the flat would provide security for her son. “It’s not like I’m going to make millions to pass on to him,” she said. “It was my responsibility to protect that money, and now it’s going to be gone. I just think about the life I’m going to be able to give him, and this sense that our security as a family is lost.”