Maxine Burton apologises for repeatedly breaking down as she tells me about the demand for £119,000 that has just been delivered to her apartment in Cartier House at Leeds Dock.
It is more than enough to drive anyone to despair and she is not alone. Floods of tears are being shed by others across the country who have had similar letters.
The bill from the building’s freeholder, which was calculated and sent by managing agent LIV, is a bid to make Maxine and her fellow leasehold flat owners in Cartier House pay to fix fire safety defects uncovered after the Grenfell tragedy.
“There is no way I can find £119,000. It is completely unsustainable but the managing agent has served us with a Section 20 notice, which entitles them to claim a sum over £250, and there is nothing we can do about it. If we don’t pay, the freeholder can forfeit our lease and repossess the flat,” says Maxine, 34, who knows that if the Government does not take steps to prevent the mass injustice, the only option for her and others caught in the cladding and building safety scandal is bankruptcy, with all the punitive repercussions that brings.
“Bankruptcy is awful and has a huge impact on your life in all sorts of horrible ways,” says Maxine, who bought her two-bedroom flat for £178,000 in March 2017 and has a mortgage for £145,000. She would lose her home, her bank account would be frozen, her credit and debit cards useless, her incomings and outgoings assessed and if she has more than £20 a month to spare after essential expenditure, that would be taken and put towards her debt for three years.
Her bankruptcy would also stay on her credit file for six years, which means she would not get another mortgage. Others affected by the scandal have already been forced to hand their keys back to their mortgage lender after being unable to pay for interim fire safety measures such as waking watch fire patrols and hugely increased insurance costs, which were added to their monthly service charge.
Maxine and her partner had bought their flat with a plan to renovate it before selling to fund a move to the country. Their dreams have been shattered and they are now among more than three million other leasehold flat owners left trapped, unable to sell, struggling to pay sky high service charges and living in fear of fire and of losing their homes.
The fire safety remediation bills for £100,000 and more per flat are now being delivered to leasehold flat owners across the country, even though these innocent victims did not construct the buildings they live in and don’t own them.
As a leaseholder of an apartment, they have the right to occupy their home for a set number of years. It is the freeholder who owns the structure and the communal parts of the building.
While the Government has pledged to replace flammable cladding on apartment buildings over 18 metres, it will not pay to put right other fire safety defects that have been uncovered by surveyors.
“No leaseholders can afford to pay bills for £100,000 each and more and if the freeholder repossesses all the flats in a building, then they will be left to pay for the remediation work and that will be unsustainable for many of them too,” says Maxine. “The Government has to act and it does have some responsibility because building regulations and checks on materials used in construction failed to identify problems.”
The Prime Minister, who once stated that leaseholders should not have to pay a penny to remediate apartment blocks, was urged to honour that pledge as parliament resumed this
All hopes centre on Labour and a number of rebel Conservative MPs, who are set to table the McPartland-Smith amendments to the Building Safety Bill in this new session of parliament.
Its aim is to protect leasehold apartment owners from any remediation costs in blocks with unsafe cladding and other fire safety defects.
Maxine Burton is urging the public to take action: “It often feels like society has a tolerance for the casualties of this scandal. I hope not and so I would like to say ‘please help us’. Write to ministers and your Conservative MPs and ask them to honour Boris Johnson’s promise that leaseholders should not pay and to support the McPartland/Smith amendments to the Building Safety Bill.”
You can help victims of the cladding and building safety scandal by emailing Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove, [email protected] and your Conservative MP, if your constituency has one. You can also show support for victims and campaigners on Twitter by following groups including End Our Cladding Scandal @EOCS_Official; @LeedsCladding; @sheffieldcladdingscandal; UK Cladding Action Group @UKCag