Find Others are campaigning to end service charge abuse by housing associations. Find Others co-founders – Amar Chauhan and Georgina Hollis – explain how shared owners can challenge incorrect service charges.
Shared Ownership Resources: First of all, can you tell me a bit about Find Others… what is it exactly?
Amar Chauhan: When people experience unfair treatment it can be hard to know what to do. It’s particularly difficult to take effective action – as an individual – against giant corporate companies. Georgina and I both come from a tech background, so we decided to launch an online platform to help people find others in a similar situation, and to provide resources to support group action.
Georgina Hollis: We believe that it’s easier to tackle difficult problems collectively. Hence Find Others.
Who is Find Others aimed at?
Georgina: Find Others is for anyone facing an unfair problem – large or small, local or global. It could be to do with mis-selling or a defective product, medical negligence, housing problems, environmental or economic issues or even war crimes, It doesn’t matter. The over-arching intention is that people facing problematic issues can find others in the same situation and tackle problems together.
Your current featured campaign is: End Service Charge Abuse by Housing Associations. How did that come about?
Amar: We happened to speak to some cladding campaigners and it opened up a whole can of worms. It seems that everyone has a negative story to tell about service charges, whether building safety or more general costs.
Georgina: We were particularly shocked that so many people reporting service charge issues had a housing association as their landlord. It’s not what you expect from social landlords providing homes for financially vulnerable households. So we’ve launched our campaign in partnership with SHAC (Social Housing Action Campaign). We want to to unite housing association tenants and residents and call for an end to widespread service charge abuse.
What service charge problems d0 housing association residents encounter?
Georgina: Service charges can rise rapidly but it’s not always obvious why. Many housing association residents report grossly inflated and incorrect service charges. And shared owners face unique problems. They pay 100% of costs regardless of the size of their equity share. (Which would be as low as 25%, or even 10% under the new model for shared ownership).
Recent research reveals the scale of shared owners’ service charge increases.
“Typically, shared owners saw charges of the magnitude of £48 per month to £180 per month or £50 to £250 per month over nine years, although some had much higher rises. For context, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, £50 in 2012 by 2021 would be worth £62.82 if the service charge increase had reflected inflation.“Do Affordable Homeownership Schemes Reduce Homeownership Risks for Lower Income Households in England? (2022) University of York
Amar: One shared owner, Ed Spencer, decided to go through the most recent four years of service charge statements with a “fine tooth comb” after his charges doubled to £300 over the past decade.
Georgina: So far, Ed has obtained refunds of over £25,000 for tenants in his development. But unfortunately many housing association residents may not even realise they’re being overcharged.
The Housing Ombudsman has identified poor record keeping by social landlords as an issue of concern, and intends to undertake an investigation into record keeping and data management.
“poor record keeping has been repeatedly identified as a driver of poor service. This can result in residents experiencing inadequate responses, delays and things not being put right. It is a systemic, sector-wide issue and that’s why we’re focusing on it as the subject of our next investigation”.Press release (November 2022): Ombudsman issues call for evidence on record keeping
If housing association residents, including shared owners, are concerned about incorrect service charges what can they do?
Amar: We’ve created a 3-stage process:
- Summary of service charges: First off, we encourage people to complete our free form to request a summary of service charges from their housing association. That way they can take a closer look at the charges.
- Request invoices: If anything seems unusual – for example, a charge for services which haven’t been received, or if a cost seems overly high – people can dig deeper by asking to see invoices.
- Formal complaint: If the housing association fails to comply with their legal obligation to provide this information, or if residents find evidence of incorrect charges, Find Others will support people in raising a formal complaint and advise on what to do next.
Is this a legal process?
Georgina: We’d always encourage people to attempt to resolve incorrect service charge disputes outside the legal system. But if litigation becomes unavoidable, we can provide assistance in finding a specialist lawyer.
From personal experience, I know it can take a LOT of time and effort to challenge incorrect service charges. Shouldn’t the onus be on housing associations to get it right in the first place?
Amar: We completely agree that service charges should be better regulated. We need top-down reform. Find Others and SHAC will track service charge issues people tell us about. We’ll assess which housing associations routinely fail to provide transparent information, or issue service charge statements containing significant discrepancies. We intend to focus attention on repeat offenders. Collecting data will also allow us to make a compelling and better evidenced argument for meaningful regulation of service charges.
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