Great Portland Estates may have been awarded “Property Developer of the Year” but people living in “affordable” homes at its Rathbone Square site in Fitzrovia are struggling to live in poorly designed flats and are watching their bathrooms fall apart mere weeks after they moved in.
Residents complain of high service charges, incompetent management, rotting materials and a lack of security at the block of 20 “discounted market homes” built by GPE as part of a legal agreement with Westminster council to provide affordable housing in Newman Street.
GPE who received planning permission for the major mixed-use development in 2014 are accused of being in breach of the s106 agreement with Westminster council — a charge they strongly deny — by delivering housing not fit for purpose before handing over to A2 Dominion, the registered housing provider, who are themselves accused by residents of being incompetent.
At a meeting of residents in an upstairs room of a nearby pub they described to Fitzrovia News and West End ward councillor Pancho Lewis a catalogue of problems with the flats which they have experienced since moving in from December last year.
They are mostly young, professional, thirty-somethings embarking on their first experience of home-ownership at a scheme specifically designed for people with a strong connection to the City of Westminster.
Fifteen of the 20 householders contacted the residents association to complain about design problems and build quality of flats. Bathrooms are poorly designed with unsuitable materials which are already in need of replacing. Timber is absorbing water, lifting, swelling and rotting. Wet room floors are not draining properly, and in one case water runs out under door into the corridor. Automatic lights go off in windowless bathrooms leaving occupants showering in the dark.
The kitchens, say the residents, are poorly designed with little storage space. The communal rubbish and recycling area was left open for weeks because of a faulty lock allowing unauthorised access from the street into the stairwell and post room. When a locksmith came to fix the door a resident had to let them in and explain where the location was because no-one from A2Dominion turned up to supervise the work. A relatively simple job took too long to do and left residents vulnerable to theft and compromised their personal safety in what is a high crime area.
Giulio Folino, chair of 14 Newman Street Residents Association, told Fitzrovia News: “We believe that the properties we have just part-purchased should be fit for purpose, and managed effectively. We have asked for a detailed breakdown of our service charges and if we believe the money has been spent incorrectly we will be contesting these. We no longer wish to be treated as second class citizens in the Rathbone Square development,” he said.
Councillor Lewis supported the residents concerns and told Fitzrovia News: “It appears that there are a whole raft of issues at 14 Newman Street including but not limited to poor design of the building and disregard of residents’ needs by A2 Dominion.
“We need to get to the bottom of this and understand what’s happened. I’ve written to the Council’s most senior housing officer who is now investigating the issue. If it’s found that these affordable houses have not been built to due standard, then it is an effect a breach of rules to do with the provision of affordable homes. This would be totally unacceptable. Developers need to be held to account,” said the Labour councillor.
However, a spokesperson for GPE said they “strongly refute” the allegation that they are not fit for purpose.
“These homes were tailored to provide affordable housing, at around a 60 percent discount to market rate, with affordable service charges, for people who might otherwise have struggled to get on the property ladder in this part of the city. Rathbone Square meets all relevant regulations and standards, including our Section 106 agreement with Westminster City Council.
“We are committed to assisting A2Dominion to resolve any defects which become apparent to the homeowners as they settle in,” they said.
A2D was more contrite and issued a public apology to the residents and promised to address their concerns.
“We would like to reassure residents that we are doing everything we can to resolve the issues at Rathbone Apartments as quickly as possible,” said Steve Michaux, director of residential services.
“We always strive to provide an excellent management service to our residents and we regret that there are still some outstanding issues at this scheme.
“Our team have been in contact with residents and we have appointed contractors to carry out the required works. We are keeping residents informed as the work progresses to ensure the homes are at the standard we would expect.
“Repairs have already been completed on the doors to the external bin storage and bathrooms have been assessed, with repair works due to start soon.
“We can confirm that the homes meet fire regulations and safety standards.
“With regards to service charges, every pound paid by our customers goes towards covering the actual costs of managing their buildings, without any additional charges added.
“We would like to apologise to our residents for the inconvenience caused, and once again, would like to assure them that we are taking their concerns seriously,” he said.
Cllr Andrew Smith, Westminster Council cabinet member for housing services, told Fitzrovia News that they were pressing GPE and A2D to urgently address the problems.
“Providing housing that is both affordable and high quality is a priority for us. We’re aware of the issues raised by residents at Rathbone Square and stand with them in wanting this resolved as quickly as possible. We’re putting pressure on the housing association and developers to carry out the required improvements.”
Despite the problems the residents say they are keen to move forward and many things are better than expected. They said Fitzrovia was a “brilliant location”, and they were making good use of the bike storage facility to cycle to work. The homes had “good soundproofing”, and build quality and finishing were otherwise good.