By Sean Meleady

ACORN Norwich, a community union which focuses particularly on tenants’ rights, has been dealing with member defence cases against two Norwich estate agents: abbotFox and Northwood.

In July, Dr Sophie Housden, a register at Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, rented a property from abbotFox in St Martin’s Road, along with her wife and three young children. They found that parts of the kitchen were dark with mould and the bathroom floor was stained. Other problems included mouldy cupboards, no working fire alarms, soiled furniture in the garden, used sanitary towels in the shed, and a pervasive smell of vomit. Crucially, the couple also claimed they found worms around the kitchen sink and were concerned the water was unsafe to drink.

Consequently, Dr Housden and her family left the property in mid-July, considering it dangerously unsafe to live in. AbbotFox sent contractors to the property, claiming all the necessary repairs were completed by July 17. However, this was contradicted by an inspection by a Norwich City Council housing officer a week later, who identified a series of “category one” hazards (the most serious category) and instructed the landlord, himself a partner at abbotFox, to undertake repairs.  

An example of the eye-catching visual media ACORN Norwich employs, here referring to the abbotFox case (credit: ACORN Norwich). Images of the condition of the property can be found here.

I spoke to ACORN Norwich’s Communications Officer, Dan, who explained the health issues arising from the property and the response of abbotFox: 

“The black mould made Sophie (our member) really ill. She had an allergic reaction and she couldn’t work during the pandemic as it compromised her immune system. An agent at abbotFox said, ‘You can’t live there anymore.’ They refunded their deposit, so they moved out and wrote to abbotFox asking for their moving costs. They got a response from the director saying that the member of staff that had released them from the contract shouldn’t have and had resigned due to stress.” 

After Dr Housden and her family moved out, abbotFox initially demanded that the family pay six months’ rent, threatening them with the possibility of legal action before backing down. However, the agency has refused to pay back the first month’s rent, despite the fact that the family left the property after just two nights. They are also refusing to pay the costs of the family having to move again, rent an Airbnb for a week and subsequently rent a more expensive property, and also for cleaning costs. With the backing of ACORN, who have been campaigning for the family to also be compensated for the physical and financial stress caused by both the state of the property and the subsequent behaviour of abbotFox, altogether Housden and her wife, Shey, are seeking £5,412.66 in compensation. 

ACORN’s campaigning efforts have included a petition and demonstrations outside the company’s headquarters in Upper King Street, which have frequently resulted in abbotFox staff calling the police and subsequently sending emails asking for the names and addresses of ACORN members. After their Facebook and Google review pages received a high volume of negative reviews, abbotFox put out a statement defending their record and accusing ACORN of “bullying” tactics. AbbotFox recently informed the EDP that their directors have contacted lawyers, whilst many recent negative reviews have been met with the statement: ‘This is a spam review by someone who isn’t a customer. Their intent is to lower the average Google rating for this business. This review and its creator are being investigated by Google and the police.’

A cartoon produced by ACORN before Christmas as part of their member recruitment push. Credit: ACORN Norwich

ACORN are also in dispute with Northwood after two of its members were locked out of their home in Gertrude Road when they complained about asbestos in the property. After contacting Northwood, they temporarily stayed with family, but on their return they found that the landlady was packaging their belongings and had changed the locks

Northwood denied that asbestos was present, but a subsequent test, paid for independently by the tenants, and seen by the EDP, confirmed the presence of chrysotile (white asbestos). Northwood again disputed this, claiming that they had paid for an air test which showed asbestos was not present.  

The landlady claimed she changed the locks because of a large number of people outside the property, a view supported by Northwood, who spoke of the presence of “17 angry people”. ACORN disputes this, arguing that only 4 other members turned up to help prevent what they described as a ‘revenge eviction’. They have organised a petition, which has been signed by over 200 people, along with pickets outside the Northwood office in Wherry Road demanding that the agency meet with the tenants to resolve the issue. 

What we saw was a clear example of the police siding with the property owner – not the tenant who had every legal justification to have access to their property”. 

ACORN Norwich’s Dan is heavily critical of the actions of the police:

“They were up-to-date on rent and no formal eviction process had started. We were there for 5 hours to explain the law to the police and why it was an illegal eviction for those locks to have been changed and for them not to have access, even though they were paying. The police allowed the landlady to leave, even though she had committed a criminal offence. 

“They {the police} were ignorant of the law. We had one of our national organisers on the phone explaining the legalities to the police. In the end they said it will get escalated to our legal team and to date (bearing in mind this happened at the end of September) our members have heard nothing from the police”. 

Dan also argues that the landlady had been asked to take action by Northwood:

“She said (and we’ve got it on video), ‘Northwood told me not to talk to you.’ There was a bogus notice in the window which said that the tenants had abandoned the property. There is some legislation around abandonment notices and it had been improperly applied. What we saw was a clear example of the police siding with the property owner – not the tenant who had every legal justification to have access to their property”. 

Dan further points out that the two ACORN members were fortunate to have other accommodation they could go to: “Luckily they had somewhere to stay but if they hadn’t they would have been made street homeless and the police would essentially have facilitated that.”

In response to a request for a comment on the case, a Norfolk Constabulary spokesperson replied:

Officers were called to an address in Gertrude Road at 4.50pm on Saturday 17 October following reports of a dispute. Officers attended and established the dispute involved a tenant and landlord. Issues between tenants and landlords are a civil matter; however, officers did make enquiries to establish whether any criminal offences had been committed. Following enquiries no criminal offences were identified.

ACORN members celebrating a recent victory in a member defence case. Credit: ACORN Norwich

Whilst these two member defence cases remain ongoing, ACORN Norwich have also celebrated a win recently, successfully persuading a landlady to release a member from her rental contract and return her deposit after the ACORN member had been assaulted by another tenant. 

The local community union currently have 80 members and are hoping to reach 100 soon so that an official branch can be formed. Following the national strategy, they want to replicate the wider community-based campaigns of other regional ACORN branches. For instance, ACORN Swindon have been campaigning for the return of a leisure centre to public ownership, whilst branches in Bristol and Manchester are focused on doing the same with public transport. In the New Year, Norwich activists are hoping to move on from solely campaigning against landlords and letting agents, expanding their remit to fight for the community as a whole.  

Featured image credit: ACORN Norwich

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