Housing in London: damp, mould and high charges at Peabody properties
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Sylvia Crowe and her carer, Sarah Myland, live in fear of heavy rain. The pair, who have lived together in social housing for more than 20 years, say they have never known a time when their flat was not at risk of flooding.
Elliott Dennahy says he felt like he’d won the lottery when he moved into his central London flat alongside the river Thames in 2015. Now the 35-year-old father of two says that service charges he considers excessive and unjustified have turned his living situation into his “worst nightmare”.
Desmond Williams vacated his Islington home in July 2022. The kung fu teacher says he was forced to find alternative accommodation after his ceiling collapsed twice due to a leak. He says he resorted to spending one night sleeping rough in London’s Victoria train station after his landlord did not extend his stay at a hotel.
All of these individuals live in homes run by the Peabody Trust, the third biggest housing association in London and one of the oldest in the UK since its first estate opened in Spitalfields in 1864 as an antidote to the squalid slums housing the capital’s poor.
Many of the UK’s largest and oldest housing associations are rooted in philanthropy: they were established to provide safe, affordable homes for people facing poverty. “They [housing associations] were supposed to provide housing that people were proud to live in,” says Suzanne Muna, a secretary at the Social Housing Action Campaign.
Housing associations — which are regulated, licensed and partially funded by government to provide public housing — are “supposed to adhere to higher standards than private landlords would”, according to Muna.
Over the past 25 years, as successive governments have encouraged councils to transfer housing stock to housing associations, they have come to be some of the UK’s largest landlords. Providers of social housing are especially needed by people in the capital struggling to afford open-market rents, which have risen dramatically in recent years.
Since its founding, Peabody has grown to oversee 104,000 homes for 220,000 individuals, adding modern flats and private leasehold properties to its original stock of Victorian dwellings.
But the group’s stated mission — “helping people flourish” — stands in stark contrast with the findings of a Financial Times investigation involving testimony from 35 Peabody residents in 34 properties across the UK capital, from Islington to Shoreditch to Deptford.
The investigation reveals widespread mismanagement of homes, affecting social housing tenants, shared ownership residents and private leaseholders alike, and shines a light on problems with housing associations the government is pledging to fix.
The social housing regulation bill going through parliament, which will subject social landlords to tighter regulatory standards by giving more powers to the social housing regulator, gained urgency after the death, in 2020, of two-year-old Awaab Ishak as a result of mould.
An amendment to the bill, known as Awaab’s law, places more onerous requirements on landlords to fix dangerous living conditions within a tight timeframe.
In a statement, the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities says “the reports of this investigation by the FT are deeply concerning. We take this very seriously and rightly expect landlords at Peabody Trust to take action to make their homes safe and decent.”
“When our social housing bill becomes law this year, a stronger regulator will have the power to issue unlimited fines, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice and make emergency repairs with landlords footing the bill.”
But the bill will not help private leaseholders interviewed by the FT, who also spoke of neglect, mould, chronic disrepairs, as well as rising service charge bills and a culture of poor communication which makes resolving issues a maddening task.
Some residents say the root cause of the neglect they experienced with the housing association was ineptitude. Others blame a lack of care, lack of accountability, greed or a festering culture of “us and them”.
“There’s no care whatsoever [in] the way they treat us,” one resident says. “They know we don’t have another option. They know they have all the power.”
In a statement, Peabody says: “Everyone has the right to live in a decent, safe, comfortable home and our job is to put things right when they go wrong and learn from our mistakes. Our teams are working with the residents you have highlighted to resolve outstanding issues, and we are sorry in the cases where things have gone wrong. We know there is room for improvement and our aim is to never give anyone cause to complain.”
All of the accounts highlighted in this piece are supported by documentary evidence including photographs and videos of damaged homes; emails to and from Peabody and other parties such as local councils and MPs; as well as visits by the FT to some residents’ properties.
When it rains
In their ground floor flat in north-east London, Sarah Myland and Sylvia Crowe keep their clothes hung on rails in waterproof plastic bags. It’s the only way to keep them safe from the damp, they say.
Crowe and Myland say they have spent two decades trying to resolve problems caused by water which “swoops” through their flat on very rainy days, carrying debris and pigeon waste from the guttering.
Crowe, a former outreach worker, says she has stepped out of her bed in the past only to find herself “up to my ankles in water”.
Scaffolding is wrapped around their flat — which was owned by a smaller housing association until Peabody acquired it in 2018 — situated in a townhouse sandwiched between eight others. It was put up in September to fix issues with the guttering which caused a flood the month before.
They say Peabody has refused to implement regular maintenance to prevent the flooding and instead sends contractors to complete repairs in a “money-saving, piecemeal” matter. “You cannot relax as soon as there’s any kind of heavy rain or storm coming. You’re just on constant alert. You don’t sleep,” says Myland.
Crowe, who suffers from lupus and has also been diagnosed with pneumonia, says living in a damp flat has aggravated her health complaints. “They don’t treat you as if you’re part of the human race,” she says. “I feel a sense of real outrage. I’m really, really angry.”
Peabody says it takes issues of mould and damp very seriously but that this particular block was complex and situated in a conservation area which limited what work it can do. It adds it is sorry for the length of time taken.
Each of the almost three dozen residents who spoke to the FT say they have difficulties communicating with Peabody and getting their complaints resolved. Several describe the sprawling organisation’s communication style alternately as “dire”, “dismissive” and “condescending”.
Jane, a social housing tenant of 15 years who asks to be identified by a pseudonym, says she is terrified to move her family of seven back into their three-bedroom maisonette in Southwark due to mould that has spread following a leak in December.
The mother of five, a full-time carer to her children who are disabled, tells the FT that Peabody ignored multiple reports of a leak, culminating in her child’s bedroom floor collapsing three days after it was first reported. The family spent Christmas in a Travelodge hotel in south-east London.
A sufferer of regular chest infections, Jane now fears repairs of her mouldy, soaking home will be completed as a “rush job”, based on her previous experience of how Peabody handles repairs. Her concerns were “laughed off” by a surveyor sent by Peabody, she adds.
Peabody says the works has been put on hold for insurance purposes, but that they are hoping to start work soon.
The criticisms of Peabody are echoed throughout the housing association system. A recent report from the Housing Ombudsman said complaints about damp, mould and leaks increased by 77 per cent between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 to 3,530.
Less than half of the 40 landlords surveyed have implemented a specific policy to deal with mould after recommendations were initially made by the Ombudsman in 2021, according to a follow-up report after the inquest into Awaab Ishak’s death. Landlords were still blaming residents and their lifestyle choices, the Ombudsman found.
“It is scandalous that anybody has to live in mouldy, damp housing,” says Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up and housing secretary. “Measures to improve standards and treat social housing tenants with more respect are long overdue.”
Peabody is among 12 per cent of landlords surveyed who say they are in the process of implementing a damp and mould policy. But residents tell the FT they still have problems drawing attention to their concerns.
One shared-owner resident of St Paul’s House, a Peabody-managed property in the south-eastern area of Deptford, says contractors for the housing association described damp on the wall as “just a mark” and attributed problems with condensation to “too many plants”.
Others say neglect and inadequate repairs mean the cost of repairs and labour adds up, leaving homeowning residents to shoulder higher costs.
Residents of the BedZED estate in south-west London, the UK’s first zero-carbon community of scale, say they were initially drawn to the estate’s unique features, including wind cowls and woodchip burners.
But they say neglect and botched repairs made by contractors who do not understand the specialised systems have left them feeling demoralised. “Expensive, quality, triple-glazed wooden windows are now rotting because they’ve not maintained them and that makes me livid,” says Dave Tchil, a public health worker and community activist.
Peabody says it plans further investment in maintenance at BedZED. Tchil’s experience lobbying for residents inspired him to become a local councillor for the Labour party in May 2022. Dealing with Peabody, he says, has caused him an “unnecessary mental burden”.
Scale of charges
The issues surrounding leaks, defects, or neglect of repairs to their homes is all the more infuriating because of the service charges residents pay for their property’s upkeep.
At City Angel, a block of 70 Peabody flats in Old Street, shared-ownership residents say they are subject to escalating service charges which have only once been backed up by annual accounts — which were unaudited — while services provided are insufficient.
Hot water access had been limited between November and February, a resident says, while mould first reported to Peabody in October went unchecked for three months.
A total of 29 Peabody residents across London interviewed by the FT raised complaints about service charges, including those who say the charges are unjustified, incorrect, unclear or gleaned from services that they believe are unfulfilled.
A dozen residents say the actual accounts based on the amount spent in a year have arrived late. Eleven say Peabody has underestimated costs in its annual budget, meaning they are confronted with additional bills.
“They are basically using residents as a cash machine,” says Jean-Baptiste Merkel, a private leaseholder whose service charges on his property in Clapham have increased by about 50 per cent since 2017. “They tell us they have a budget but they don’t, they just spend money and at the end ask us for the difference.”
Peabody says: “We do not make a profit on service charges and do all we can to ensure they are accurate and reasonable. Errors and inconsistencies are incredibly frustrating for residents, and we know that improvements need to be made to both the way they are collected and in how we deal with and answer queries about them.”
Housing associations collectively receive about £1.5bn annually in service charge payments, according to the Social Housing Action Campaign, which lobbies on service charge issues.
Around 96 per cent of 300 residents recently surveyed by the organisation say they have experienced issues with service charges, including excess, unexplained or unclear costs.
“We wouldn’t tolerate it from the banking system and yet tenants and residents are paying literally thousands of pounds a year in service charges,” says Muna of SHAC. “It is so, so sloppy, and sloppy in favour of the landlord.”
She says widespread, unaccountable service charge errors exist because there is no system of scrutiny in place to monitor costs being passed on to tenants. A “light touch” auditing process allows errors to go unchecked, while institutions, such as the ombudsman, are limited in terms of fines and compensation they can impose.
Many Peabody residents describe the painstaking process of tracking down cost breakdowns and receipts, which they believe are often passed on directly from management companies unchecked.
Sylvia Morris, a former headteacher who describes herself as a “nitpicker”, says residents have to be “tenacious and strong minded” to chase proof of costs and services.
Despite visiting Peabody’s offices to examine the accounts of a recent bill, Morris says she still does not fully understand why her service charge has surged from £795 a year in 2018 to £1,530 in 2022. That year, Morris says, her block was issued with additional charges for repairing faulty guttering. The guttering still leaks, she adds.
Several residents say they feel trapped in properties where service charges are spiralling out of control.
Dennahy, a video editor, says he was charged an additional £2,400 and £1,700 for the financial years ending in 2021 and 2022 respectively, charges he thinks are unjustified and feels powerless to challenge.
After pushing for a cost breakdown from Peabody, Dennahy realised his block was charged more than £30,000 a year for landscaping and ground maintenance in those years. “All our plants are dead,” he says.
He is now “one invoice away” from not being able to pay and says Peabody has verbally threatened to inform his mortgage provider if he falls behind on service charge payments.
He adds: “What boggles our brains when we think about it is that Peabody is supposed to be a housing association, they are supposed to be there for the people that need help.”
In its statement, Peabody says: “We’re reviewing how we set and collect service charges and have formed a task force to deal specifically with service charge queries. We have also created new roles to boost our resources in this area.”
Commercial vs social priorities
Complaints of neglect levied against Peabody illustrate how housing associations have become further removed from their social purpose.
Large scale voluntary transfers of social housing stock under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the 1980s from local councils to housing associations — which later amalgamated — enlarged associations, leaving local residents feeling like they were out of touch.
As funding cuts for new social homes and bank loans dried up in the wake of the global financial crisis, housing associations turned to corporate bonds and the private market to fill the gaps.
“We are not a country where people on low income can afford anywhere decent to live. That’s the issue,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.
Consolidation in the sector has made the problem worse. “You have to look at the drivers of that,” says Neate. “A lot of housing associations are struggling to make ends meet financially, it’s tragic that a lot of small and medium housing associations that are closer to their social purpose get swallowed up by larger, more commercial bodies.”
Housing associations’ willingness to develop their existing stock has been clouded by concern for how this would impact their credit score and standing in the eyes of lenders, according to Professor Stewart Smyth, chair in accounting at Sheffield University Management School.
“There’s a tension between being commercially minded and socially hearted,” he says. “The tendency over the last 30 years has been more and more towards commercially minded. That’s the funding environment and the policy environment they operate in.”
Housing associations also adopted intricate group structures, according to Smyth, morphing into spider webs of registered charitable units, joint ventures and public limited companies.
Peabody Trust now has 14 subsidiaries — excluding those gained through amalgamations and takeovers — and 11 joint ventures, including with property developers.
These complex structures inevitably shift housing associations away from their founding missions, Smyth says. “You see that in terms of the financings, amalgamations, takeovers . . . that starts to take away from social aspects which are about local communities and local people.”
As frustration swells among residents about the state of their home or the charges they pay, a number have escalated their concerns beyond the Peabody complaints system to join residents’ associations, lobby local MPs or challenge charges in courts.
Many other housing association residents have been forced to do the same. Fleur Anderson MP, a Labour MP for Putney in south-west London, says she has met two chief executives of two different housing associations in the past month alone, to push for “urgent repairs” to homes in her constituency after “months of inaction”.
“It is simply unacceptable,” she says. “There is a lack of accountability which leaves many residents in poor quality housing with nowhere to turn.”
Bringing complaints through the legal system is an expensive process, with residents often quoted tens of thousands of pounds for legal representation.
Others feel like the only solution is withholding payment, but advisers and lobby groups have warned that this comes with risks. “If you get taken to court and you’re found in breach of lease, you’ll get crucified in legal costs,” says Sebastian O’Kelly, director of Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which lobbies for leasehold reform.
One Peabody resident, who ceased paying service charge payments after noticing what they described as costs that were “quite grossly financially inaccurate” and “unfulfilled”, says Peabody got a county court judgment invoked against them. A sum of almost £10,000 on top of legal costs was demanded, according to a copy of the judgment, seen by the FT.
Some residents say speaking to the FT was the only way to hold Peabody to account with their initial faith in the housing association slowly worn down.
“It’s not just frustrating, it’s exhausting. As a resident, our voices are not heard. When we have a concern, it’s swept under the carpet,” says one, who has been dealing with mould, leaks and a cracked kitchen ceiling for a year.
“We support action to encourage and make it easier for residents to raise issues with us,” Peabody says in a statement. “We are listening, and ensuring we identify every opportunity to make things right, learn lessons and improve our services.”
Improvements could not come soon enough for the Peabody residents who say their experiences have profoundly marked their lives.
Williams, the kung fu instructor, recently moved back into his Islington flat. Peabody says it arranged accommodation for Williams while his home was being repaired and has offered him further assistance.
But he says several repairs, including damage to windows and smoke detectors, have still not been completed, while his personal belongings have been damaged by contractors.
“No one wants to take responsibility,” says Williams. “When you ask for anything, they give you nothing.”
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Letters in response to this article:
Peabody property woes point to a historic failure / From Professor Mark Stephens, Ian Mactaggart Chair in Land, Property & Urban Studies, University of Glasgow, UK
Why housing associations have all lost their way / From Judith Martin, Winchester, Hampshire, UK