Private tenants in Stoke Newington threaten rent strike as fears of mass evictions grow

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

Private tenants in Stoke Newington are threatening a rent strike after being refused a discount during the coronavirus lockdown – as thousands of people face going into arrears and fears of mass evictions grow.

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

More than 100 renters in Somerford Grove, behind Beyond Retro, wrote to their managing agent and corporate landlord asking for a 20 per cent reduction in rent and an agreement no-one would be evicted because they couldn’t pay during the pandemic.

But an agent at Tower Quay emailed back saying the landlord had its own financial commitments that needed to be maintained and the request was “unreasonable”.

They also told tenants that savings including “reduced work travel, work clothing, lunches, cancelled holidays and entertainment” would minimise the impact of their reduced income.

The email added: “Subsequently when all of this is taken into account, in most cases we believe the impact on disposable income will be minimal, and there is therefore no justification for any reduction in rent, especially considering that whilst tenants are isolating the wear and tear in properties is increasing which will be at the cost of the landlord.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Picture: Stefan Rousseau / PA

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Picture: Stefan Rousseau / PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

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The government has been accused of offering little in the way of support for private renters. Aside from a three-month eviction freeze that ends on June 30, ministers have introduced a three-month mortgage holiday for landlords and urged them to show “compassion” to struggling tenants.

Hackney’s mayoral advisor for private renting Cllr Sem Moema has also told landlords to be “less hostile and patronising” and help tenants who can’t pay rent.

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London Renters Union, which represents almost 3,000 private tenants in the capital including those at Somerford Grove, has warned of an “unprecedented crisis of poverty, evictions and homelessness” and called for a rent freeze and a permanent ban on evictions over Covid-19 related arrears.

And London mayor Sadiq Khan on Thursday called for the government to make up shortfalls in rent payments, and said London faced a “ticking timebomb of debt, arrears and widespread evictions” once the freeze ended.

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

The corporate landlord and freeholder for some of the flats in Somerford Grove is Somerford Assets 3, which is majority owned by billionaire property developer John Christodoulou. There is no suggestion Mr Christodoulou is aware of either the tenants’ request or the agent’s response.

Some tenants there are still working on full pay, others have been furloughed or laid off, while there are also students and freelance creatives who have lost all income. Many live in house shares where some people can pay rent, and others can’t. It’s already causing tension in some flats, according to Marc Sutton, one of the organisers.

“In one flat someone has moved out and said they can’t pay rent anymore,” he said. “Their flatmate has now been told they are liable for the rent. Many people are in trouble.”

They also fear widespread eviction notices when the freeze ends on July 1, and discussions are taking place over Zoom on a possible strike.

“We’ve said we want a 20% reduction and no evictions, and what we are also really aiming for is to get no one going into debt or promising they will pay back rent later if they can only pay a fraction now,” said Marc.

One tenant said he was offered individual rent relief, but the contract said it would be void if he discussed it with anyone.

Another out-of-work tenant was saving for a house but has now had to use that cash to pay his share of the £2,300 a month rent for his three-bed flat.

“I work as a freelancer in the creative industry,” he said. “I haven’t had any work since the lockdown. Even if I have to forget about my dreams I will use my funds but I don’t think a 20% reduction is unreasonable.

“I have spoken to people in here who don’t have any work and don’t know when they will.”

London Renters Union represents private renters all over the capital and has seen membership increase by 50% since the start of the crisis. Member Danny Hayward called the Tower Quays response “nonsensical”.

“There has been an enormous, unprecedented wave of unemployment,” he said. “Of course people’s finances are going down.”

He said there were more blocks in Hackney and in south London where tenants were organising collectively for rent relief. “Tenants in large blocks with a single landlord have a certain amount or bargaining power if they withhold rent and people are discussing it,” he said.

Danny said individual tenants have been successful in requests for rent relief using a template letter created by LRU.

“The resumption of evictions is on the horizon and arrears are being racked up at an enormous rate,” he said. “We know unless something is done there are going to be a lot of eviction notices.

“It’s causing enormous stress. Lots of people are joining LRU – I think people are desperate for some solidarity even if it’s just emotional support.”

Tenants of Oslo House in Hackney Wick are in a similar position. Their letting agent Willow has already made clear there will be no blanket rent relief.

“It’s a big warehouse so there are a lot of tenants who are freelancers of self-employed and won’t get any help until June,” said one resident. “And the government guidelines just ask for compassion. To a massive, corporate, neo-liberal company what is compassion?”

London mayor Sadiq Khan has called for the government to introduce “triple lock protection” for the capital’s three million private renters, saying current measures would not be enough to stop many falling into arrears.

He wants the government to cover any shortfalls in rent due to Covid-19, including for those with no recourse to public funds. He also wants no evictions of tenants who are in arrears because of coronavirus after the freeze ends, and is calling for an end to no fault Section 21 evictions.

He said: “With millions of low paid renters in London now facing increased financial uncertainty we face a ticking timebomb of debt, arrears and widespread evictions once the suspension in court proceedings is lifted.

“Failing to bring in more support for renters will not only result in widespread financial hardship, but risks increasing the public health crisis, as renters may feel forced to return to work too soon with increasing debt and arrears hanging over their heads.”

Hackney’s Cllr Moema wrote to private landlords at the start of the lockdown asking them to “go beyond the government requirements” and the council will make the case for improved support to an inquiry being led by the government’s Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

“We’ve been clear not only that we will strictly enforce the temporary ban on evictions in Hackney, but that landlords should go beyond the government’s requirements and give their tenants extra help if they’re struggling to pay their rent,” said Cllr Moema.

“If private tenants simply can’t afford to pay, the government’s freeze on evictions does nothing but store problems up for further down the line. We’ll be calling for additional support for renters as the lockdown continues, but landlords need to be less hostile and patronising and get used to showing compassion and flexibility in the months ahead to avoid a crisis for thousands of people.”

Tower Quay and Yianis Group, the developer with two of the Somerford Grove blocks in its portfolio that lists John Christodoulou as director, have not responded to a request for comment.

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