On Boxing Day last year, Sarah Henley and her partner were asleep alongside their eight-month-old baby Rudi when they were roused by cries. Water was pouring through the bedroom light fitting on to their son, soaking his cot and their bed. It was exactly two years since the couple had reported water leaks over a stairwell in the shared-ownership block managed by London & Quadrant (L&Q). They claim nothing was done and the leaks then spread to their flat in the four-year-old building.

“In August 2017 we came home to find water pouring through the ceiling on to our bed, which is fixed and can’t be moved, and my son’s cot,” says Henley, who lives in the London borough of Southwark. “I then discovered that a report had been made six months previously but no action had been taken.”

The family complained again and scaffolding was twice erected but removed without any repairs being done. In December, water began soaking their bedroom again and the family was forced to move into a hotel and then a series of Airbnb rentals.

“Because nobody could give us a timeline we had to completely re-arrange all our plans for our baby’s first Christmas and keep moving between temporary accommodation until the flat was habitable again,” says Henley, who was forced to move three times over eight days. Six days after they moved back into their flat, the leaks resumed and they spent three weeks shifting between Airbnb rentals and friends’ flats.

L&Q is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous housing associations, accommodating 250,000 people across London and the south-east in homes built with the help of tax-payer subsidies.

In spite of – or because of – its rapid expansion, residents on some estates say they have spent years complaining of substandard living conditions and have had lengthy battles over repairs. All 43 reviews on the TrustPilot website mention neglected repairs and unheeding customer services.

Lisa Askew, a social tenant, launched a petition in 2016 to force L&Q to take action after two years of damp, mould, cracks and vermin in her home in Welling, Kent, which affected the health of her baby daughter. L&Q eventually moved her to another estate where, she says, problems have continued.

“I’ve been to hell and back with L&Q. They took two years to repair a leaking water tank in the living room, and our house appears to be suffering from subsidence with huge cracks in the walls,” she says. “I tripped over defective floorboards I had complained about, causing a hairline crack in my knee and soft tissue damage, and had to wear a cast for 12 weeks. We’re trapped in a house we don’t feel safe in because we can’t afford to rent privately or own a home of our own.”

L&Q says that a structural engineer was sent in May and concluded that the cracks were due to thermal movement rather than subsidence. It agreed to appoint another surveyor for a second opinion.

On Henley’s estate, leaks that damaged four flats have been fixed, but residents have reported frequent and long-lasting breaks in the supplies of hot water and heating over the four years since the estate was built.

This month, in the height of the heatwave, the water supply was disconnected for a day without warning while repairs were carried out, and L&Q was obliged to reimburse Henley’s partner, Timothy O’Hara, for the cost of a pair of shoes ruined when he had to wade with his young son through raw sewage, which regularly floods the parking area.

In spite of the problems, the service charge has been increased by 18% for next year, some of it for services that have not been provided.

“Each time we have a meeting with L&Q we are promised that things will get fixed and dealt with and then nothing happens or things get worse,” says Graeme Legge, a resident who has called for help from his MP, the mayor of London and the housing ombudsman.

“Sometimes the hot water outages last as long as a month but the compensation we have been offered has been paltry and we have had to push for rebates when we’ve been charged for services we haven’t received.”

L&Q says: “We would like to apologise to residents for the ongoing issues that they are experiencing. Repairs to the roof were completed earlier this year and we are installing a new boiler system to address the hot water outages, which we expect to be complete by the end of next week. We are enlisting an external supplier to mend the sewage pipe in the car park as it is a specialist repair job. It is being dealt with as an urgent matter.”

It adds that service charges are based on an initial estimate of expenditure, which is later reviewed. “In the case of this year, the charges for this estate have increased because a caretaking charge has been added,” it says. “All residents have received additional refunds where services were compromised. We have and will continue to compensate residents on a case-by-case basis in relation to any issues still affecting them.”

Last year, Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, announced an £8bn partnership with the company to build 20,000 homes, in spite of denouncing its poor maintenance record in a BBC interview in 2010. A further 80,000 new homes are planned within the next 10 years.

When asked about resident dissatisfaction with L&Q, the mayor’s office said Khan had raised the issues with L&Q but has no remit to get involved in individual complaints.

“The mayor believes that no one should have to live in substandard conditions, and landlords must resolve any issues with their homes as a matter of urgency,” it says. “Unlike affordable housing investment, the regulation of social housing landlords has not been devolved to the GLA in London. Nonetheless, when housing management issues are brought to the mayor’s attention by residents, his team picks them up with councils and housing associations directly, as they have done in this case.”

Housing associations are not-for-profit organisations created in the 1960s to provide low-cost homes for workers. However, critics claim that standards and affordability are being compromised as they become increasingly commercialised. Figures compiled by the Times show that nearly 100,000 homes built for social rent at less than 50% of the market rate have been sold off or converted for higher rents since 2012. The Chartered Institute of Housing predicts another 80,000 social rent homes will disappear by 2020.

Meanwhile, housing association chiefs’ pay has soared, with an average salary of £166,205 in 2017. Last year, L&Q’s chief executive, David Montague, received a basic salary of £344,000, making him the fifth-highest paid in the sector.

The family claim they reported leaks in their block two years before water came through their ceiling – but nothing was done. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

This year, in spite of a slight cut, he will take home £408,564, including a bonus and cash in lieu of pension, yet residents complain he has ignored all requests to engage with them over their years of unresolved problems.

L&Q says that executive pay is set by a governance and remuneration committee and reflects “value for money, current market levels, and the importance of talent retention for an organisation that is large, complex and commercially driven to deliver social goals”.

Government cuts have helped drive the sector into ever more commercial ventures. In 2012 the budget that subsidised social housing was reduced by 60% and in 2015 George Osborne, the then chancellor, imposed a 1% annual rent cut for four years, only a year after committing to a decade of inflation-linked rises. This reduced the income of housing associations, many of which fund social projects using the profits from building, selling and renting full-price homes.

Last year 40% of L&Q’s £1bn turnover came from rents and sales at market rates. Although it is one of the most prolific builders in the sector, only half of the 100,000 homes it plans in the next decade will be what it describes as “genuinely affordable”.

In the past financial year it made a record operating surplus of £420m and it says it increased spending on repairs and maintenance from £120m to £173m.

Many of its residents have yet to see the benefits. Henley, who has spent £810 on emergency accommodation, has been offered £720 in expenses by L&Q and nothing to compensate for the stress and inconvenience. She is planning to take her case to a small claims court.

“The leaks have been fixed but the security gates keep breaking down, we are regularly without hot water and, until now, L&Q has blamed the sewage leak in the car park on residents putting wet wipes down the loo,” she says. “It’s hard enough living and working in London with a new baby, without having to move frequently and endure the endless admin to get problems fixed.”



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