City+: Karen Woolfson on the leaseholders who've had enough of harassment by bullying freeholders
Leaseholders are forming support groups around the country in an effort to take united action against abusive freehold landlords. They aim to set up a "fighting fund" to help stamp out the wide-spread practice by landlords of harassing leaseholders who dare question service charge bills and ask for their legal rights to be respected.

Unfortunately, freeholders and property managing agents who are carrying out a good service are being tarred with the same brush as the rogues who flout the laws and victimise leaseholders. That is why Gerry Fox, managing director of Fineman Lever, the current guru of managing agents, is doing his best to restore the industry's image by encouraging a crack down on the charlatans. He believes managing agents and landlords should be required to register with a regulator and to adhere to strict standards.

The idea for a support group with a fighting fund stemmed from a meeting of a group of disgruntled leaseholders in London, some of whom are considering taking their landlords to a Leasehold Valuation Tribunal or even to court. At the meeting, people complained that their homes had become virtual prisons, due to the games, tricks and harassment they have had to put up with from aggressive landlords.

The meeting led to a group of leaseholders forming plans to build a support group, saying that the only way to be heard is to take constructive action themselves. Many of them are raging inside.

One leaseholder, who did not wish to be named, says with emotion: "Who do you turn to when you're being harassed? The harasser harasses when there are no witnesses around and he cannot be heard, knowing that evidence is exactly what the council or any other authority require to take action. I feel that's wrong. There has to be a change in the law, greater powers given to tackle this horrendous problem. This is happening to a lot of people."

She alleges that her freeholder physically and verbally threatens her in the hallway, bangs with all his might on her front door, uses the hallway like a wardrobe, has wrenched the side mirrors off her car, deliberately jumps up and down above her bedroom and has entered her flat without her permission. "He acts as if he owns the whole house," she comments.

This is taking a heavy toll on her everyday life. She feels tense, to the point where she often feels physically ill. "I feel out of control of my environment, my home," she says. "It's as if my life's on hold. He's turned my life upside down, taken my security away from me in my home. And he appears to be getting away with it."

Her story is almost a carbon copy of others who have talked to The Independent about harassment. She complains of threatening phone calls, abusive language, aggressive letters and other malevolent strategies.

Leaseholders who want to join or start up a support group in their area can write to The Independent and their name will be passed on to someone in their region who may be able to assist them. Other steps you could take are to contact your local council (housing department) to discuss what action you can take or seek advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau or solicitor.

Karen Woolfson welcomes your comments. Write to: Homebattles, c/o Nic Cicutti, Money Section, `The Independent', One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Karen regrets that she is unable to reply personally to all letters.

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