Families say they are trapped living in tiny, “pocket-sized” flats because their developer is not paying to fix fire safety issues with their building brought to light as a result of the cladding crisis.
Defects including dangerous cladding, poorly installed fire doors, and missing fire barriers have been discovered within a west London block developed by Pocket Living, which specialises in building affordable micro-flats for first-time buyers in London.
The 38sqm flats are marketed for temporary use by those trying to get on the property ladder or those periodically working in the city.
But some residents of the development say they have been left trapped and unable to move out of the tiny flats as banks have refused to issue mortgages to prospective buyers due to the fire safety issues.
Despite this, work to remedy the defects is yet to begin as Pocket and other firms involved in the building or management of the block have failed to put forward any funding.
Raj Singh, who moved into his one-bedroom flat four years ago but is now stuck sharing it with his partner and one-year-old daughter, is among residents who have outgrown the starter homes.
“[Our daughter] is literally in a cot wedged against the side of our bed,” said Mr Singh, who described getting up in the morning as “like a jigsaw puzzle” with him and his partner moving the cot to get out of the room.
“Why are we paying extortionate mortgage rates on a property like this when I can get a bigger property for bigger living conditions for me and my daughter and my partner?” he said, adding that it is “disgusting” that his baby daughter has been forced to live in a block with serious safety issues.
Some of the residents of the Pocket Living block say they feel they have been forced to put important life decisions on hold while they wait for the problems to be resolved. Others said being trapped in the flats has had a detrimental impact on their relationships.
Vivian Zhou, 53, was one of the first residents to purchase a flat in the development, which was built in 2009.
Initially she loved her flat, which she said is “beautiful” with “big windows”, but things started to get difficult during the pandemic when she found herself stuck working from home in such a tiny space.
Ms Zhou said the flat is partly to blame for the demise of her long-term relationship. “For two people, it’s not very nice,” she said.
Vivian Zhou said she has developed back problems form working from her kitchen table (above) during the pandemic (Picture: Supplied)Vivian Zhou initially loved living in her micro-apartment (above), but now wishes she could buy a larger place (Photo: Supplied)
Her partner chose to return to his own flat during the pandemic, which eventually led to them splitting up. She would now like to move to a larger flat, but is stuck until the building safety issues are resolved.
Louise, a leaseholder who did not want to give her last name, bought a flat in the Pocket Living development in 2010, but has since married, moved to Herefordshire and had a baby.
But she is stuck paying monthly mortgage payments for her flat, which is currently sitting empty, after having seven buyers fall through.
“I can’t remortgage, I can’t sell, I can’t do anything. For something that was supposed to be a nice first-time buyer starter home, it’s just a bit ridiculous,” she said.
Louise has put off renting out the flat as she said there has always been a “carrot dangled” that there would be a solution.
However, she is now thinking about renting it out in order to cover her mortgage payments, which are set to significantly increase amid the economic turmoil caused by Liz Truss’s mini-Budget, as she is on a variable rate.
“I’m on maternity leave. I’m not earning any money and I’m paying to live somewhere else and pay for the flat at the same time,” she said.
These leaseholders are among thousands of flat-owners who have found themselves unable to move home after the Grenfell Tower fire led to the discovery of widespread building safety defects in tower blocks across the country.
Many leaseholders initially faced bills of up to £100,000 to fix the problems with their building, but the Government has now stepped in to try to force developers or building owners to pay for the work instead.
The Government’s plan has included getting almost 50 of the country’s largest developers to sign a pledge that commits them to paying to fix any buildings they have developed with defects over the last 30 years, however this pledge does not cover smaller developers such as Pocket Living.
MPs have also passed the Building Safety Act, which gives leaseholders the power to go after developers and building owners in the courts to make them pay for remediation work.
However, the Pocket Living case shows there are still holes in the Government’s plan, with various companies involved in the development and management of the property still in dispute over who is liable to pay for work.
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Liam Spender, a lawyer with knowledge of the Building Safety Act, said the legislation “very clearly sets in order of priority” who is expected to pay for remediation work “with the developer at the top, the landlord in the middle, the leaseholders at the bottom”.
But Pocket Living argues that the question of “liability” is “not straightforward”. It argues that the Building Safety Act “does not require or expect a party who may only be associated with the development concerned to remediate it at their sole expense” and said it is “working tirelessly” to bring the contractor responsible for the design and build of the block, Durkan, to the table.
A Pocket Living spokesperson told i: “Pocket Living is firmly committed to delivering high quality buildings which are affordable to Londoners, and in line with our values as a responsible developer and provider of affordable housing, we are taking proactive steps across all of our buildings in light of continuing Government announcements about building safety.”
They said the west London development is the only one in Pocket Living’s portfolio where building safety issues have been discovered.
Durkan told i it has recently been made aware of the building safety issues with the block and is “gathering the necessary information to ensure we can assess these in full, and respond appropriately”.
When asked to confirm who is liable to pay for the remediation of the block under the Building Safety Act, the Government did not directly answer, but said the legislation “makes clear building owners’ and landlords liabilities and gives us powers to pursue those that continue to flout the rules”.
The residents of the west London block have also recently reached out to the owner of the building, RMB102 Ltd, but are yet to hear anything back.
A spokesperson for RMB102 Ltd told i: “RMB102 Ltd takes fire safety very seriously. The safety of our leaseholders is of paramount concern to us.
“In this particular case, there is an active developer and we are advised that they are talking to the Residents Management Company’s agent in pursuit of a solution.
“The Government has mandated that developers should pay for and remediate all historical building safety defects for buildings which they have developed.
“In view of the above, we do not expect any funding shortfall will arise and therefore no costs will fall to leaseholders.”