Low income housing in the Poplar area. The Canary Wharf skyscrapers are seen in the background.

Tower Hamlets tenants struggling over service charge increase

Tenants of a major Tower Hamlets housing association are struggling due to a significant service charge increase introduced on 3 April.

Tenants under the Poplar Housing And Regeneration Community Association (HARCA), who own and manage over 10,000 homes, saw their charges soar and in some cases at least double.

The rise comes paired with steep heating charge hikes linked to the cost of living crisis.

Tower Hamlets councillor and Poplar HARCA tenant Mohammad Chowdhury, 43, had his service charges more than double to £42.46 per week.

He said: “I can’t justify their charges. The council has a duty for the welfare of the residents and should look into it.

“I can’t say all housing associations are honest and working for the best interest of their tenants. It’s like olden days, Lords and Dames.

“They didn’t maintain the promises they made to the people at their inception as a not-for-profit organisation. They create their own jobs and pay their salary at the expense of people’s blood and sweat.”

Several housing associations have admitted to inaccurate service charge billings, a possibility which concerned HARCA residents.

Eleven-year HARCA tenant Lesley Hamaidi, 67, who saw her service charges almost triple, said: “I was really upset. The charges alone are £100 a month extra. I’m a pensioner, I’m 67 and I work part-time so I’m not entitled to housing benefits.

“It’s definitely had a mental impact on me, I didn’t sleep properly for days. Moving is not an option for me. It will be a struggle.”

The government rent increase ceiling is 7%, but there is no protection for tenants against rising fees besides rent.

Hamaidi’s bill saw an 18% rise from service charges alone, and emphasised failure to pay could lead to eviction.

A bill from Poplar HARCA before the service charge increase. The total bill is £128.55, including a service charge of £13.86.
A bill from Poplar HARCA after the service charge increase. The total bill is £168.77, including a service charge of £37.59.
CAN’T PAY? CAN’T STAY: Bills from 2022 and 2023 depicting the increase

She added: “I emailed them twice saying how wrong it is. They just say it is what it is. And make sure you prioritise paying us. The absolute cheek.

“They should look at the figures again, because they really are pushing people into the poverty line.

“It’s going to affect people’s health and what foods they can buy. This is a lot to suddenly find. It’s such a shock to everyone.”

Tenants also complained the association can be dismissive towards severe issues such as heating and hot water malfunctions.

Similar frustrations are reflected by several negative Google reviews describing the association as unresponsive.

Poplar HARCA’s own 2021 survey showed 61% of respondents were dissatisfied with complaint resolution and updates from the landlord.

They also received two maladministration verdicts from the Housing Ombudsman Service in 2021 and 2022.

The complaints resolution subsection of the 2021 Poplar HARCA survey. 61% of respondents were satisfied with ease to report issues. The same percent was dissatisfied about complaint resolution and about being kept up to date.
DISSATISFIED: Poplar HARCA 2021 survey results

A Poplar HARCA spokesperson said: “As everyone is at the moment, we understand our residents are worried about the increasing cost of living.

“Our service charges cover the cost of providing day-to-day services, and we have to set these at the start of each financial year based on what we believe the actual costs will be.

“We’re not allowed to overstate the estimate, and we investigate any concerns raised by residents.

“We respond quickly to repair requests, but it sometimes takes longer than we would like to fix complex issues and we know we don’t always get things right. 

“We want residents to be happy in their homes and work with them to understand how we can improve.

“Like all housing associations, Poplar HARCA is regulated and audited, and residents are closely involved in our governance.”

Activist response

Renters across London went on a rent strike against their associations to protest similar service charge increases on 1 April.

This is the latest strike organised by the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) following several cases of social housing associations inflating service charges, and will affect 61 landlords

SHAC will offer advice and resources to those withholding any amount of rent or service charges.

The movement will also rally around strikers facing legal action by their landlords.

More than 400 people have signed up to SHAC’s pledge so far, some representing entire estates, suggesting a much greater reach.

The campaign has a record of successful strikes against housing associations including Optivo, One Housing Group, Metropolitan Thames Valley and Clarion, among others.

Their partner Find Others have developed a platform where tenants can request invoice packs from landlords and escalate to ombudsman services if these are not supplied, however less than 1% of landlords have provided the pack to those requesting it.

SHAC criticises current methods to challenge rent and service charge increases for putting tenants at a perceived disadvantage.

A case-study on 341 rent challenges by Generation Rent found the First-tier Tribunal awarded an average 13% increase in rent across all tenancy types.

SHAC secretary Suzanne Muna said: “Access to justice is virtually impossible. Legal aid doesn’t cover most housing issues.

“If there’s an inaccuracy, you have to pay and ask for a refund. In other sectors you wouldn’t pay for something you don’t get.

“Public housing should be under council control, not private associations.”

Tenants can challenge service charge or rent increases at the First-tier Tribunal.

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