Private tenants in Stoke Newington threatened with legal action over rent strike plans

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

Private tenants who are threatening a rent strike after being refused a blanket 20 per cent reduction have been told they will be taken to court if they do not back down.

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

More than 100 renters in blocks in Somerford Grove, Stoke Newington, signed a letter to their landlord and managing agent asking for the reduced rate, as well as assurances no one would be evicted for racking up arrears because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Managing agent Tower Quay declined the blanket reduction, saying the landlord had its own financial commitments – but has said cases will be discussed with individuals.

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

Now, after talks of a rent strike, Tower Quay’s lawyers have threatened legal action against those it accuses of “encouraging tenants not to pay their rent (even where the tenant can afford to do so)”.

The block in Somerford Grove.

The block in Somerford Grove. - Credit: Archant

But tenants are not backing down and say goodwill on their part is “beginning to sour”. Their demands are “no evictions, fair rent, no retaliation”. They want no evictions at all during 2020, a 20% reduction in rent, no late fees and no retaliation when it comes to contract renewals.

They also want no tenants to be held liable for the rent of flatmates who move out during the lockdown, as has already happened this month.

Tenant Marc Sutton says on-site security, which usually consists of someone on the front desk who patrols blocks, has been ramped up, causing a “climate of fear” with people being “filmed by security guards”. Tower Quay did not respond to the claims when contacted by the Gazette.

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The letter, seen by the Gazette, states Tower Quay is “sympathetic to the hardship being caused to some”, but that tenants are still contractually obliged to pay rent.

Diane Abbott. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

Diane Abbott. Picture: Stefan Rousseau - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

It adds: “If individual tenants have situations where they are genuinely adversely financially affected by the pandemic, which has resulted in them not being able to pay the rent in full and on time, then they can, on an individual basis, discuss the situation with our client as has already been outlined to you by our client.

“Our client takes a dim view of your actions because they consider that your actions seek to procure tenants to breach their contract with the landlord.

“Our client has instructed us that if you do not immediately cease your actions then we will be instructed to pursue you through the courts not only for your outstanding rent but for damages arising from those that you have procured to breach their contract. You will also be liable for legal costs and interest as well as damages.”

The government has been accused of not doing enough to support private tenants, thousands of whom will not be able to pay their rent as the lockdown continues. Ministers introduced an eviction freeze, which ends in July, and asked landlords to show “compassion” to tenants. It also offered landlords a mortgage holiday.

Hundreds of students have already signed up for rent strikes and mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said London, with its three million plus private renters, faces a “ticking timebomb of debt, arrears and widespread evictions” once the freeze ends.

Thousands of people were also set to take part in rent strikes in the US on Friday. The protest is expected to be the largest coordinated rent strike in America in decades.

Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott has also spoken out on the issue affecting her constituents. She told the Gazette: “It is unreasonable for landlords to demand full rent and threaten eviction under current circumstances. Many people have lost their jobs, or are on very reduced pay.

“If there are genuine cases where landlords themselves have mounting bills, the government should be there to provide loans or grants. But no one should be made homeless because of the coronavirus crisis.”

Marc, who has been leading correspondence with Tower Quay, said: “This week we have been followed around and filmed by security guards, we’ve received phone calls and letters threatening to sue us, just because we’ve been trying to come together as neighbours to deal with this crisis.”

In another email Tower Quay said there was no justification for a blanket reduction, and accused some tenants of “exploitation”. It cited WhatsApp messages agents had seen between tenants, which it said showed not everyone needed assistance and that some were supporting the demands for a discount “for their personal financial gain”. It said staff had received “abusive phone calls” which it had reported to police.

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.

Hackney 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 mayoral advisor for private renting Cllr Sem 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.”