By Chris York
Around three years ago tenants in a block of Birmingham flats asked their freeholder to wire up the intercom for their building. Until then, the only way guests could call round was to phone ahead, or shout and hope someone would hear.
The freeholder refused, telling them it would be too expensive.
A few weeks later, a giant model of a gorilla appeared on top of the carpet shop located just in front of the flats, owned by the same man who had refused to fix their intercom. They later learned it had cost him £7,500.
“These people in this block have to walk past the arse of that gorilla every morning,” says Sam Lowe, a volunteer for a grassroots union group, called Acorn. “It might as well be sticking its two fingers up at them.”
Lowe is helping some of the tenants of Emperor Court to organise, in order to pressure their freeholder into fixing a long list of problems at the property.
They are facing a battle with their freeholder that will be familiar to the millions of people also renting in the UK. Around 20% (4.7 million) of households in the UK are privately rented with tenants paying a combined £50 billion in 2017, more than double the amount of a decade previously. Despite the sums paid, tenants are often at the mercy of landlords and freeholders for the upkeep of their homes with few options available to force action.
A proposed bill legally requiring private landlords to make their accommodation “fit for human habitation” was voted down by the Tories in 2016, leaving local authorities as the only source of redress.
Tenants at Emeperor Court have taken the matter into their own hands – and are taking a less common route – they’ve formed a union.
When HuffPost UK visited the block, the tenants had a long list of grievances they say the freeholder is responsible for, ranging from extensive mould throughout and walls that leak when it rains.
Becca Kirkpatrick, 35, is one of those tenants. The walls of her home are visibly covered in mould and the plaster is so brittle that when our photographer leans against one wall, his hip goes through it.
“This damp and mould has grown all across the internal wall, the plaster’s crumpling off and the grout is popping out. There’s a smell, people visit and say it affects their breathing,” Kirkpatrick says.
“It’s the same for our neighbours, their children have been made ill. The neighbours that side that had to leave – their kids couldn’t stay with them for some of the time because the mould was causing them respiratory problems.”
Lowe says: “The balconies don’t have any drainage to let the rain run away so it was just sitting there, seeping in through the wall and saturating it. People don’t invite their kids’ friends round because they’re too ashamed of how mouldy their home is.”
The freeholder of a property is usually responsible for maintaining the roof, external walls and communal areas of a building, while the leaseholder/landlord is responsible for the interior of the individual buildings they own.
The mould in Becca Kirkpatrick’s flat is on the internal walls, and the freeholder of this block of flats, Mohammed Khan, told HuffPost UK it is not his responsibility to fix it.
But a report from an Environmental Health officer (EHO) found it was most likely caused by problems on the exterior of the building, and Khan was sent a list of seven things in the communal areas and on the exterior of the block that needed fixing.
Assad Rehmani is the leaseholder of Becca’s flat, and he claims to have notified Khan of “damp on the rear wall caused by water coming of the upper balcony onto the rear wall”. Rehmani told HuffPost UK: “Mr Khan since has done some work on the drainage on the upper balcony and put some damp proof paint on the outside of the back wall.”
The EHO signed off on the repairs, but problems have persisted.
Exasperated, the tenants again complained again to the council. Birmingham City Council told HuffPost UK said there is still an ongoing investigation into the matter.
When HuffPost UK visited the flats in July, around two months after the works had originally been signed off, the damp inside the flat was still present and some windows that were supposed to be double-glazed had only one pane of glass.
Sam Lowe says: “When we had flash-flooding, the impact of it was horrendous – water coming through light fittings.
“The Fire Service said we should clear the building. There’s little children in here. People didn’t want to leave. Where are people supposed to go?
“You’re paying rent – you’re paying money to live in this.”
In desperation Kirkpatrick and Lowe explored other avenues of redress. “We even tried to get on Judge Rinder once,” says Sam, referencing the ITV show that allows members of the public to settle minor legal issues in front of a celebrity judge.
After deciding against the daytime television route, they instead agreed to unionise in an attempt to pressure Khan into fixing the problems with their homes.
“We’d thought about writing letters from a few tenants but never ‘right, let’s get properly organised into a union and have a proper go at it’,” says Kirkpatrick.
“Everyone was fed up, everyone agreed enough was enough. The children being made ill was a tipping point for the neighbours.”
The group of residents turned to Acorn, a “community-based union tackling injustice across the country” that aims to bring “people together to support each other to improve their lives and their communities”.
Its groups have had a number of notable successes across the UK, including forcing Bristol City Council to review its procedures after two domestic violence victims faced being turfed out of a safe house.
“We got together, spoke about what we wanted and agreed to join Acorn. We pay monthly dues and Acorn provide support from a distance, training and there’s a Facebook group that gives advice as well,” Becca says.
There has been some progress – Khan has brought in a new management company in June to take over running the block and carry out repairs, although the tenants say none of the outstanding issues have been resolved.
But more than the changes to the building itself, residents say their actions have created a stronger community among those who live in it.
“I’ve been involved in loads of campaigns down the years but this last five months is the biggest feeling of success I’ve ever felt,” says Lowe.
“When you’ve lost so many times, to then feel like you’re winning, even if it’s something small, it’s so intoxicating. It’s satisfying, it’s fun, and what I’ve loved even more is seeing my neighbours, who aren’t political, are going into this hammer and tongs.
“I’m pinching myself to see my neighbours and me taking action together – it’s just fantastic.”
The freeholder himself isn’t as enthusiastic about Acorn, and told HuffPost UK the move was a “specious attempt to stamp their authority” and a “classic case of harassment”.
As for the gorilla that the residents find so insulting, he told HuffPost UK: “For the record the Gorilla is not their landlord nor the freeholder and thus has nothing to do with their issues, opinions or anything else.”