Following the Regina Road council flats scandal, much attention has been focused on the appalling record of local authorities in managing and maintaining properties.
But as KEN TOWL has discovered, there are some housing associations whose attitude to residents also leaves much to be desired
Last week I sent the following message to the company that owns 60per cent of my part-buy, part-rent Addiscombe flat:
I am planning to write a piece for Inside Croydon on the story of our external front door, how it has been without a lock for almost all of the past year. In order to provide balance, I am giving you the opportunity to provide a statement explaining how things have got this bad. I look forward to your input.
(And, in the meantime, can you confirm that, after the fire alarm went off last night, due to the non-residents smoking cannabis in the communal area, you have now re-set it and we are (relatively) safe?)
They replied with a carefully worded non-admittance of liability (“sorry to hear you feel you’ve not had a good experience from the organisation”), but no sign of an explanation or reassurance about the fire alarm.
Optivo (“Now a Southern Housing Service” as their communications have described them since a merger of the two housing associations last month) part-own and theoretically manage a mini-estate of homes in Addiscombe. I have the misfortune to live in one of them.
I won’t identify the precise development here, because I don’t want to advertise the location of a front door that, for most of the past 18 months, has been unlocked and open to anyone looking for shelter or a place to smoke a joint.
Yes, I had said “almost a year” in my message to Optivo but, after I started trawling through the dozens of emails that have passed between me and the housing association’s managers, I found that the time had telescoped in my mind. I had, in fact, first asked Optivo to fix the non-locking external door in June 2021, after I had got up one morning to go to work and, on leaving my flat, been assailed by a deep odour of stale smoke.
I live on the second floor. Halfway down the stairs, I had to squeeze past a man who was sitting there smoking the latest in what appeared to be a long line of cigarettes. I was careful not to knock over any of his emptied lager cans as I passed him. He barely grunted in response to my cheery, “Good morning!”
I won’t provide here a full list of all of the mostly fruitless communication I have had with Optivo. I’ll just share some of the low lights.
In response to my request to get the front door fixed, Mohammed Osman, a “Customer Experience Advisor”, advised me on July 5 2021 that a repair had already been effected on the 29th of the previous month. Whoever was advising the advisor had misled him. Poor Mohammed was mistaken. The door remained unrepaired. As did the water damage to my flat due to poor installation of French windows. But that is a whole other, and yet to be resolved, story….
On July 14 2021, Mohammed confirmed that a locksmith had attended on July 6 and that it was “now secure”. I was away on holiday at the time and felt reassured that my home was secure in my absence. On July 23 I arrived back in Addiscombe to find that the door was not locked.
So I got back in touch with my Customer Experience Adviser.
The door was fixed for a while, albeit with the replacement of the door handle with one that would eventually fall off. All was well for a few months.
The only notable communication from Optivo during this time was their provision to all residents of all residents’ email addresses by a Team Assistant (Level 2), who had apparently not been trained in the correct use of the email bcc function. The letter was to admonish the unknown owner of a Ford Focus for parking in an area where works had been scheduled.
On November 30 2021, the magnetic lock on the door had failed again and the new handle was almost detached. I contacted Optivo and got a response from a different Customer Experience Advisor, called Pon, who promised me that Optivo’s door contractors, DSSL, would contact me to make an appointment. I explained to Pon by return: “They don’t need an appointment to attend; they can just attend. The front door is open to all (which is, in itself, the problem).”
I added one of those smiley emojis, in an attempt to bring some levity to the situation.
On January 9 2022 I wrote to Optivo once again to inform them that the door remained unfixed, and that because this issue had been going on unresolved for so long, non-residents were aware that they could access the building. Optivo promised to respond within five days.
Then, in February, after a storm blew some fencing down, I was distracted from the ever more permanent front door failure by an entry that I came across on Optivo’s maintenance page which read:
“Job number: 1684226 Job description: (Block) Reported: 22/02/2022 – Fencing works to be carried out, previously been on hold because shed has asbestos”.
As-bloody-bestos! And Optivo did not think to inform anyone?
There it was, a casual reference to a dangerous substance hidden away in a log of Optivo’s to-do list. I asked Optivo about it and they did not seem to understand the problem, merely reassuring me that the fence would be repaired eventually.
I responded with: “Just to be clear, again(!) – I did not ask you about the fence. I asked you about the reference you made to asbestos. Can you please confirm that, while you are concerned that the shed has asbestos and so is presumably not safe for anyone to work near it, it does not present a danger to those of us who live next to it? Thanks.”
I did not append the smiley face this time.
On March 18 2022, I logged a message with Optivo’s customer service system to inform them that the repair they had carried out the previous day had lasted for just one day.
When I reported this, I included a moan about non-residents using the communal area as a canteen and treading food into the carpets. Another new Customer Experience Advisor, this one called Josh, advised me that DSSL had visited and fixed the door. They had not.
I also asked about the cable guys that had turned up, installed cabling to the porch areas outside of each flat in the block, then returned and removed it, then turned up again and reinstalled it, and suggested that perhaps they could return again and repair the damage they had wreaked to the interior of the building?
Customer Experience Advisor Verana advised me that the external door would be fixed on April 19 and that the contractors would “make good the holes on the communal walls left by contractors”. Neither of these things promised have happened.
May last year was a mad month. On May 4, Customer Experience Advisor Tom promised the door would be fixed the next day. May 5 came and went, the door remained unrepaired. On May 6 Customer Service Advisor Mohammed Osman was back on the scene promising the work would be done “shortly”.
On May 9 I tried to leave the block by the front door and was unable to do so. The maglock was back on and could not be turned off. We now had a permanently closed front door. I had to leave by the back door and leave it accessible, again, to anyone, since you can’t close the back gate from the outside.
By that evening, the maglock was off again.
In June, Customer Experience Advisor Tom told me that DSSL were waiting for a part, but Customer Experience Advisor Verana assured me the next day that they would fix the door immediately.
In July, Customer Service Advisor Ocean replied to my request for the door to be fixed by asking for my full address. Customer Experience Advisor Kerry advised me that DSSL would attend on July 22 to fix a new intercom system in my flat which would connect to the new soon-to-be-fixed door.
I stayed in. They did not turn up. This happened twice.
In August, Customer Experience Advisor Josh broke the bad news gently. Any repair would not be imminent: “DSSL Group have informed us that they’ve sent a quote to be approved to upgrade the system. Once this has been approved by our Property Services team, we will arrange for the works to begin.”
The decision to repair was sitting on someone’s desk at Optivo. In the same month Customer Experience Officer (Complaints) Michelle promised to update me by email on August 15. Promptly, on August 15, Customer Experience Officer (Complaints) Michelle told me that she was “closing the complaint”. I asked her to re-open it, given that the door remained open all the time and still did not lock.
Customer Experience Officer (Complaints) Michelle confirmed that the work had been approved by Maintenance Surveyor Stuart Brown. Nothing happened.
Customer Experience Officer (Complaints) Michelle then advised me that a Senior Maintenance Surveyor had overturned Maintenance Surveyor Stuart’s approval, and had instead asked for second quote from a company called Delta. Customer Experience Officer (Complaints) Michelle estimated that this tendering process would take another month, all the while our external door was unlocked, and anyone was free to come and go as they pleased.
More than six weeks later, in October 2022, Customer Experience Advisor Ocean promised that the door would be fixed within five days. The next day, she advised that DSSL had been awarded the job and that they were still waiting for a part.
Meanwhile, Customer Experience Advisor Verana gave me a date for DSSL’s work on the intercom system and the handing over of new fobs, and so I got a friend who is able to work-from-home to flat-sit for me, so that some could be in when the contractors came calling. But DSSL were not ready to do the work. They just posted the fobs in the flats’ letterboxes instead. We’d been fobbed off so many times already…
The next week, DSSL visited when I happened to be in. The engineer explained that they had not done the job the previous week because a part “had not turned up”. He took the old intercom away and replaced it, leaving an unpainted area next to it. I assumed someone would be along later to make good. One should not make such assumptions. You will only face disappointment.
The engineer could not get the intercom to work. Fortunately, he could not get the lock to work either, so I would still be able to get supermarket deliveries.
By November 2022 I was chasing Optivo again, and in December, too, suggesting that it might be good to get a lockable door before Christmas, when many residents would be away and a burglars’ task made especially easy.
Then last week something happened. The fire alarm went off and a group of young men ran from the building as residents turned out into the communal area breathing in the thick fug of skunk. On a windowsill on the first floor we found the papers and roaches and shreds of tobacco, the paraphernalia of the cannabis smoker. Eventually, the alarm subsided and we disappeared back into our respective flats.
This week, finally, the lock was fixed.
Unfortunately, DSSL keep trying to contact me by phone to arrange an appointment to fix the intercom, but they insist on only phoning during the hours that I work, when I can’t take calls at work.
They don’t seem to be prepared to use email and their system does not allow me to leave messages for them. So I may have to start carrying my own shopping this year.
And I have no idea whether Optivo found any asbestos in the shed.
Oh, and that email I sent a week ago to what is now Southern Housing’s “comms team”, offering the housing association the opportunity to comment on the saga laid out in this article? By the time of publication, they had not managed to pull together any sort of corporate response, although Communications Manager Jennifer has said that they will get something to us tomorrow…
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