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The Bristol Cable

Revealed: Renters living in mouldy flats handed steep rent hike by millionaire London landlords

Residents of the iconic Queens Court housing block in Clifton are fed up with living in poor conditions and their complaints being ignored, a Cable investigation has uncovered.

Queens Court provided luxurious accommodation when it opened in 1937 (photos: David Griffiths)

Area in Focus

For much of the 20th century, Queens Court in Clifton was as desirable an address as any to live. The V-shaped 1930s art deco block, surrounded by Georgian townhouses and grand university buildings, fits well with the picturesque ideal of the area. 

But today, tenants are living in flats riddled with damp and mould. And to add insult to injury, they have been slapped with a steep rent increase by their millionaire London landlords. 

In May, as the building’s management company City Estates was raising rents by up to 50% to most tenants of the 84 flats, the firm was also subject to enforcement action by Bristol City Council for failing to make vital improvements ordered in early 2022. 

A Bristol Cable investigation has uncovered grim living conditions, unanswered complaints and serious, longstanding issues with the condition of the building – illustrating how poor-quality housing can be found even in affluent postcodes. 

Some people are petrified to lose their homes if they speak up

“It’s squalor – the conditions are appalling,” says Stuart*, a resident speaking to the Cable on condition of anonymity. Many neighbours were fed up but reluctant to speak out against City Estates for fear of revenge eviction or risking their deposits.

“There’s always been mould and damp in our flat – it’s never been sorted,” Stuart continues. He’s had to do without key appliances for months, and had water pouring down his flat walls during stormy weather.  

May’s rent hike prompted residents to start speaking more to each other. It turned out most had been handed increases ranging from 30% to 50%. 

“We thought we were the only flat that had [mould and damp], but people are in far worse situations than we are,” Stuart says. As our investigation found, he was far from the only one.

The iconic V-shaped 1930s art deco block is near the Clifton Triangle. Credit: David Griffiths

High rent, low standards

“It’s needed repairs from day one,” says another tenant, Josie*, who was shocked at the state of her flat when receiving the keys. “All the old furniture was still there. The damp and mould was so bad that plaster was peeling off, the carpets were wet all the way through.”

On the rent increase, she says: “If they are going to be charging market value, they should provide market value.”

Issues in the building extend beyond the flats themselves. The block doors aren’t lockable, meaning anyone can walk in. Recently, residents had to stand on the street for hours when the building was evacuated due to a fire alarm and no staff being present to turn it off. “We were stuck outside for three hours,” says Josie. “It’s a horrific sound, kids were crying.“

Tenants have reported issues to the council and to the community union ACORN. Sam Kidel, an ACORN Bristol organiser, who visited the building, says: “I saw horrendous damp and black mould in the flats and awful bodge-job repairs that residents said had taken a long time to get done.”

Not everyone living at Queens Court is negative about the state and management of the block. “Certain flats have got problems but on the whole, I think the flats are brilliant,” says Ian*, a long-term resident. “Not everybody would agree, but I think it’s a great place to live.”

But local politicians have been hearing about issues in the building as far back as 2018. “Every other month almost, we’d get contacted by a resident in Queens Court who had an issue they weren’t getting a response on,” Green councillor Tom Hathway says. “A boiler or bathroom light not working, and it would have been like that for sometimes three or four months.

“The rent increase is not justified,’ Hathway adds. “A 30-50% hike in their biggest outgoing is never justifiable, particularly given the condition the block is in.” 

Hathway sent round a survey following the rent hike announcement, which 30 residents filled out. Most had complaints. 

“The most common issues were mould, damp, poor-quality windows not shutting, flooring, cupboards, lights not working, communal areas in a state of disrepair – all sorts of things,” Hathway says.

Soon afterwards, he got an email, seen by the Cable, from City Estates’ Leslie Zucker. “They asked us to stop meddling and accusing the residents of a concerted effort to suppress rent by refusing access to contractors,” Hathway says. Zucker sent another email threatening to involve third parties if he did not receive a reply within 72 hours. 

Work underway at Queens Court in summer 2023 (photo: David Griffiths)

Zucker and Alan Lewin are the directors of City Estates London Ltd, which manages Queens Court – and did not respond to requests for comment on this story when approached by the Cable. Their umbrella company owns land and property worth £5.9m.

But the building’s actual owners are even further removed. Thirty years ago, the freehold was bought by Watorod Investment Ltd, which paid its owners £500,000 apiece in dividends over the last five years. According to Land Registry documents, they also own a property portfolio via other companies of more than 50 properties, mostly in London, including other blocks of flats.

Despite striking an aggressive tone, Zucker agreed to meet Hathway in June 2023. He was visiting Bristol because the council was reinspecting Queens Court – due to City Estates failing to make vital improvements. 

What’s being done about it?

In 2021, Bristol City Council officers had inspected around 20 flats with HMO licences at the block and found issues with disrepair and safety. In January 2022 they ordered the building managers to make improvements within five months – but that did not happen in time, triggering enforcement action. 

Multiple residents say they think the council’s intervention is forcing City Estates into action. Major drilling work has been taking place at one end of Queens Court. 

Sometimes though, work has been done at the last minute. After the council found problems with balcony safety, glass barriers were installed. But in some cases this was as recently as June – two years after the first inspection. 

“Works were still being completed on the morning of the [new] inspection,” says Hathway. ”Residents contacted me about workmen coming the night before, putting up fake walls over mouldy patches, painting over damp spots, installing extractor fans.”

Many of the flats have balconies, which the council said had to be made safe with glass barriers. But these were installed last minute, or it appears not at all. Credit: David Griffiths

Multiple residents say it has been common for mould or damp to be simply painted over, and for workmen to turn up unannounced. “Mould has been there the entire time”, says Anya*, a resident of three years. “They just paint over it and don’t really do anything about it. It gets all over our things, it’s all over the windowsills and the bathrooms.” 

“Every two weeks we scrub down the walls,” says Anya, whose rent is set to go up to £1,200 a month after the recent rise. 

Multiple sources with knowledge of the building say that when six new flats were built on the roof a decade ago, City Estates was advised by contractors to waterproof the roof first. This advice was ignored to save money, the sources say, causing flooding into flats below. 

Today, issues with damp and mould persist, which is made even more concerning by the increasing awareness of how dangerous mould can be for your health. All the more important for problems to be dealt with swiftly, but residents say again and again that problems don’t get fixed. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a response at all. 

“The state of our flat hasn’t been too bad,” Oliver* tells me. “But the main issue has been lack of response.”

From appliances not working to bathroom tiles coming off, they report issues but often have to wait months for them to get sorted. Of the many issues they’ve logged through an online system, they’ve only had one reply, meaning they have to contact the building managers via other means. 

“There was a lot of rain in the new year, it started leaking there,” Oliver adds, pointing to the stairwell. “There was a massive puddle, we have a bunch of cracks and mould in our living room. The handyman came to look at it, but that was it.”

I ask when it was sorted out. “It hasn’t been,” he replies with a chuckle. “It just stopped raining.”

“Firstly, it seemed like a good deal, rough around the edges,” he adds. “But with the increase, it needs to improve.” 

Before the rent hike, tenants were happier to put up with the state of the flats, given the reasonable value. But now, some are demanding improvements – while for others the increase was the final straw. 

The imbalance of power

When Hathway met Leslie Zucker, the City Estates director indicated that more gradual rent rises might be possible. “[Zucker] eventually conceded that a staggered increase might allow tenants to find somewhere else to [live],” Hathway tells me. “By and large, it was head in the sand about the issues and no problem with pricing people out of the block.” 

Some residents we speak to say they have managed to negotiate smaller increases than were first tabled by City Estates. 

“A lot of people accepted [the rise] straightaway out of fear of being kicked out of their flats,” Oliver says. “They didn’t give any info about the process.

“For some people it’s up to 50%, which can force you out,” he says, adding that he knows “lots” of people who are planning on moving.

“I can’t handle it anymore,” says Josie. “I’m lucky to have somewhere else to go. But there are people who are petrified to lose their homes if they speak up.”

This is echoed by ACORN’s Sam Kidel, who says: “Many people I spoke to feared revenge evictions if they pushed too hard against the lack of maintenance and felt pressured to accept rent increases they didn’t want.”

Someone who is able to speak up is Sophia Quinn, who moved out in March 2022. For four years, she made regular complaints about damp in her flat not being sorted out.

“There was a point where the damp came through the ceiling of our toilet and a giant mushroom grew in the corner,” she tells me. “It looked like something from Stranger Things.”

Eventually, she’d had enough and found somewhere else to live. “I think I was just happy to get out of the dangerous mouldy environment,” she says. “But they said the only way we’re going to give you a reference for your new place is if you write a review for us on Google.”

She left City Estates a five-star review, which is still there, one of the few positive ones. “I was in a desperate situation, I just wanted to get out.”

Hathway says the situation at Queens Court neatly encapsulates Bristol’s wider rental market: “The power is in the hands of landlords and management companies.” He adds that the Renters Reform Bill, which will outlaw no-fault Section 21 evictions, cannot come quickly enough. 

“So many are anxious about losing their homes – [an end to the threat of revenge evictions] combined with rent controls is what we need nationally and in Bristol,” Hathway says. “I’d like to see [the council’s] enforcement action mean City Estates take proper control of the building, do maintenance that needs to be done, so tenants paying the hiked rent will at least get safer, warmer, more secure homes.”

Bristol City Council did not answer our questions about the enforcement action, but said: “Officers have visited the property and engaged with representatives of the agents regarding their proposals for the building. The situation remains under review.”

Stuart, who has now decided to move out, says: “At the end of the day we want them to be fair, and we think they’re not being fair at all… If it was in top notch condition and structurally sound and well decorated, it would be a fair price.”

“It’s an amazing, iconic building and they’re ruining it,” he adds, with a tinge of sadness. “I’m actually surprised the council hasn’t done more, because nobody should be living in that.”

*Not their real names


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