After campaigning with fellow tenants for a rent reduction and a halt on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, renters in east London claim they have been harassed, surveilled and threatened with injunctions, and now face eviction by agents acting for their billionaire landlord.
Jordan Osserman, Marc Sutton and their housemates have lived in the Somerford Grove block in Hackney since September of 2018. They were informed last week that their tenancy would not be renewed and that they’d need to vacate their home in September, despite having paid their rent in full throughout their lease, including during the pandemic.
They received this news after solicitors acting for the agent of their property developer landlord – John Christodoulou – threatened to hold them personally liable for any unpaid rent by other residents struggling to pay.
The same lawyers have also told Osserman he could be left with a £20,000-plus legal bill for an injunction if a video made by residents highlighting their situation was released online.
John Christodoulou climbed to 82nd place on the Sunday Times Rich List 2020, with a net worth of £1.8 billion, up from £1.6 billion in 2019. The Monaco resident owns two five-star hotels in Canary Wharf, where he is a leading freeholder, according to the Times.
In late March, at the height of lockdown, over 100 residents of Somerford Grove wrote collectively to their management estate agency – Tower Quay – asking for relief during the pandemic.
Tower Quay is the agent for 170 flats in Somerford Grove, acting on behalf of their corporate landlords. The majority of tenants who signed the initial letter have three corporate landlords who are the freeholders of their properties: Simpson House 3, Reverie Estates SR Limited and Somerford Assets 3. These three companies are majority owned by Christodoulou.
The residents requested a 20 percent rent reduction for all those in the building while the lockdown continued, after they were informed routine maintenance in their properties would not be carried out. Some tenants on furlough were only being paid 80 percent of their wages, while the many freelancers who live there had seen their incomes slashed substantially. Their letter also asked for a commitment that nobody unable to pay their rent during the pandemic would face eviction and be made homeless, and proposed that payment plans be agreed for those worst hit by the financial impact of lockdown.
The agents refused to agree to these terms, and the dispute made headlines after one response suggested that money residents would be saving on lunches, holidays and entertainment should cover any shortfalls in their bank balances. Some tenants were offered a 20 percent rent reduction for two months, but only on the condition they paid their full rent, plus 20 percent, in July and August. These residents were also told that the offer was void if they shared this information with anyone else in the building.
A Tower Quay spokesperson told the Guardian that, “It is not feasible for a single landlord to simply offer all concessions to all tenants whilst there is no support being offered by the government to landlords to assist this.” The spokesperson said that some residents could still afford their rent, while others were being supported individually.
While correspondence between the renters and their letting agents continued, some residents noticed increased security in their building, and that they appeared to be under surveillance.
Osserman says he was filmed by a security guard hiding behind a pile of cardboard boxes when knocking on a neighbour’s door. In another incident, Osserman was preparing to pose with a banner opposite his apartment when he noticed a plain-clothed private security guard watching him from above. Footage of the interaction seen by VICE News shows Osserman asking a man standing on a walkway above him what he is doing. “My job is to see what you are doing,” says the man.
“So have you been asked by Tower Quay to report back what we’re doing?” asks Osserman.
“Yes,” replies the man.
“I slightly lost it when the security guard started following me around,” says Osserman. “It’s one thing to have a collective dispute with your landlord – it takes it to another level when you’re being personally harassed in your own home, which we pay £2,300 a month for the privilege to live in.”
On the 27th of April, at least 12 residents – including Osserman – received letters from lawyers acting on behalf of Tower Quay. The letters stated that, unless they immediately ceased their campaign, the agent would take these individual residents to court, pursuing not only any rent they had personally not paid, but also for damages in relation to any other unpaid rent from their fellow tenants, and substantial legal costs.
Tower Quay’s solicitors got back in touch with Osserman on the 28th of May, doubling down on their promise to hold him liable for any unpaid rent from others in the building, and threatening to take out an immediate injunction to prevent the release of a video the campaign group had made. The solicitors added that they would ask the courts to force residents to foot the legal bill, which is “likely to be in excess of £20,000”.
The two-minute video clip demands, “No evictions. Fair rent. No retaliation.” The video, seen by VICE News, outlines the situation residents find themselves in. One person featured is a woman who lost her job at the start of the pandemic; others say they’ve seen their incomes fall, yet were faced with rent increases in April. One woman who had to sign up for universal credit after becoming unemployed says she sent multiple emails to Tower Quay explaining her situation, but received no reply. One resident says the situation is “heartbreaking”, with all her income being spent on rent she is still unable to afford, with nothing left to live on.
Aware that press reports suggested that Christodoulou had not been personally consulted by Tower Quay on the residents’ requests, the renters published an open letter asking him to meet with them on the 12th of July. “We are appealing to you directly in the hope that you will show your tenants the same compassion you show your many philanthropic causes,” the letter states, referring to the food and care packages his registered charity – the Yianis Christodoulou Foundation – has delivered during the pandemic.
Christodoulou is yet to respond, but last week Osserman, Sutton and their housemates received an eviction notice from Tower Quay. Despite having paid their rent in full for the nearly two years they have lived in the property, they were informed via email that their tenancy would not be renewed in September and they’d be forced to leave their home, with the agents citing a “business decision”. This type of no fault eviction had been paused at the start of the pandemic, but will resume again from the 23rd of August.
In a letter sent to the agent and landlord this week, Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville expressed his concerns about the decision to evict. "It is clear to me that this action is a direct response to your tenants seeking greater security for themselves and their neighbours at a time of crisis,” he writes, “exactly the type of revenge eviction that we do not accept in Hackney.”
“This situation is a case study in all that is wrong with our private rented sector landlords, who think they can respond to requests for support and stability during a global pandemic by simply handing out eviction notices, and a completely inadequate system of regulation that lets them do it,” Glanville told VICE News. “We are appalled at the treatment of these three private renters, and we have contacted Tower Quay to make that clear, and the tenants themselves to offer any support we can.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one resident told VICE News, “At the end of March I was laid off, leaving me with very little choice but to ask for some kind of rent relief during lockdown”. After accepting a 20 percent reduction until the end of June, the resident is now being asked to pay 120 percent of her standard rent for August.
“Now fellow tenants have been served eviction notices, staying anonymous is the only way we can protect ourselves from eviction,” they said. “More and more people are being laid off, and no companies are looking to hire. So we have no choice but to speak up, and if the government doesn’t intervene we will be forced out.”
“At the end of the day,” says Osserman, “all we’ve asked for is to meet with our landlord to talk about our situations, as the Tories themselves have recommended. In response, we’ve been bullied, harassed, threatened with a £20,000 lawsuit, and now we’re being evicted. All while Christodoulou gets celebrities to promote him as a philanthropist who cares about homelessness. Could it get more hypocritical?”
VICE News approached Tower Quay and John Christodoulou for comment multiple times, but have received no response at the time of publication.