Ipswich skyscraper tenants face ‘hellish’ conditions
Tenants living in the shrink-wrapped St Francis Tower in Ipswich say the suffocating vinyl plastic covering their building is just one of many issues making life there “hell”.
An investigation by this newspaper found that ongoing resurfacing work on the Ipswich town center skyscraper is the least of their worries for many tenants.
With one elevator out of service for months and the other “broken down almost daily”, tenants with disabilities have to rely on others to help them up hundreds of stairs.
Mums say they have to drag their babies’ prams up to their high-rise apartments on their own or wait downstairs for help from neighbors.
A relative, who did not want to be identified, said: ‘If you leave the pram unattended you can guarantee that someone waiting outside the building who knows the code will come in and pinch it.
Tenants also claimed stepping over dumped rubbish, drug addicts and homeless people on their way in and out of the block was routine – and claim people who don’t live there are waiting for an opportunity to ‘sneak through’ .
They say the building’s complex ownership structure leaves tenants “at the bottom of the pile”, with no one willing to take responsibility for their suffering.
Tenants who live in the 16-story tower pay rent to their landlords, who own the leasehold apartments and pay ground rent to the freehold landlord, RG Securities (#2).
Tenants then pay service charges to the managing agent, BMUK, who takes care of communal maintenance on behalf of the landowner.
But with tenants already facing high costs for building safety works after St Francis Tower was found to have ‘more flammable than Grenfell’ cladding, the landlord doesn’t want to charge them for replacing the elevator or the installation of a security team.
Ross Bonner, the tenant of four flats for rent in the building, said he was already paying the ‘maximum’ he could afford – and was still £46,000 in arrears with service charges.
He pointed out that any additional charge levied by the managing agent and the freeholder would lead to financial ruin.
“Most of the problems are caused directly by the tenants”
According to BMUK, which collects £51,000 in management fees from tenants, replacing lifts is impossible as it would cost flat owners between £350 and £500,000, while recruiting 24-hour security guards would be just as expensive.
But his spokeswoman said there was also no obligation for the free landlord to guarantee working lifts, and that it was up to individual rental agents and tenants to ensure they are not placed on upper floors if they cannot use the stairs.
She added that there wouldn’t be as many problems in the block if tenants treated the building with respect – and elevators and common areas weren’t constantly trashed.
“Most of the problems are caused directly by tenants and the people tenants invite directly into the building,” she said.
“BMUK has ample evidence that tenants are responsible for the majority of vandalism.
“We also have video of a known tenant breaking walls in common areas and kicking one of the elevators. We understand that they will soon be expelled.
But tenant Caroline Haydon-Knowell said the vandalism “was not in the interest of residents”.
She said: “I just can’t get the idea of people in this building trashing their own facilities. It just doesn’t make sense.
“But even so, that’s no excuse for BMUK to deflect responsibility.”
“The situation is appalling”
Real estate giant Regis Group Holdings, majority shareholder of RG Securities (No. 2), says on its website that it has invested in assets worth more than $25 billion.
When this newspaper contacted the company for comment, asking if it would be willing to fund replacement elevators on behalf of the tenants, we received no acknowledgment or response.
Tenant Jamie has lived in the block for two years – while neighboring couple Carl and Amy have been there for four years.
“The situation here is absolutely appalling,” said Jamie, 44, who would not reveal his last name.
“I am on my fourth hernia. Walking up and down from the 12th floor is agony and takes me forever.
“The elevators are no good. I’ve been stuck in there three times since I got here. Other people have been trapped there for hours, but I can’t stand it – I end up forcing the doors to open.”
BMUK said the lift contractor was always trying to free stranded people within the hour.
Amy, 34, lives with her partner Carl, 31, on the 10th floor.
She said: “I take care of my sister, but when she comes here with her baby, I have to help her up the buggy up ten flights of stairs when the lift breaks down. My own my health is also poor I have fluid on my kneecaps which makes walking extremely painful.
“Back when we had the 24-hour security guard patrol, when there were problems with the cladding and we were waiting for fire alarms to be installed, things were much better.
“No one was coming in and trashing the place.”
Tenants say there are a host of other issues making life difficult for them, such as insufficient bin storage, a broken intercom system and a lack of washing machines in the utility room, with three currently serving 116 households.
BMUK said there were as many washing machines as could be physically accommodated and the intercom system was being replaced. He said the 15 bins outside were rotated regularly and the “only reason” rubbish was thrown outside the bins was when residents were “stealing” and “not using them properly”.
But Amy stressed that the situation “still felt unfair”.
“I know it’s cheap, but we’re paying our rent, we’re holding our end of the bargain,” she said. “It’s like renters are just stuck at the bottom of the pile.”
“If people don’t like it, they can leave”
Duncan Scott, owner of Pauline Scott Property Management and rents 80 of the building’s 116 apartments, said tenants had all been thoroughly vetted and he believed the people causing the damage were not residents .
“They’re going there to cause damage because they think people can’t see what they’re doing because of the shrink wrap,” he said.
“Lots of people from different backgrounds rent from us at St Francis Tower, and part of their culture is to have lots of people around. We can’t stop them from doing that, but we can evict tenants who admit to having caused criminal damage, and we will work with BMUK to investigate the sublet when it is brought to our attention.
“At the end of the day, however, we are not forcing anyone to stay there. If someone complains and says they hate living in the block, we will give them their opinion and tell them to leave.
“It’s up to tenants to decide if they’re willing to live on a high floor. We always warn them about elevators.
“Of the tenants we rented out, only one ever had a wheelchair and she was on the second floor. But she has moved out now.”
He added that the shrink wrap had a “pressure cooker” effect on the environment inside the block.
“As soon as this envelope is removed, things will be different,” he said.