Graham Mansions, a crumbling Edwardian block on a main road, is owned by the Pearses, one of Britain's richest families with a fortune estimated at pounds 200m. Clarice Pears, 62, who heads the family, is the fourth wealthiest woman in Britain.
The Pearses have just hit their tenants with rent increases of up to 300 per cent, as much as pounds 500 per month in some cases for flats without bathrooms.
Mostly pensioners and the long-term unemployed, many of the 80 tenants live in the conditions of a bygone age. Apart from not having bathrooms - the tenants that have them have put them in themselves - they contend with crumbling brickwork, open drains, rotten window frames and gaping cracks in the exterior walls.
In a flat close to the man who takes the train to his sister's for a bath lives an 80-year-old pensioner. He has no bathroom and has received a demand for rent of pounds 500 per month, up frompounds 125. Like many tenants in Graham Mansions, his rent is paid by Hackney Housing Benefit. "Under section 604 of the Housing Act flats without bathrooms would qualify as unfit for human habitation," said a Hackney council press officer. Although the council pays the housing benefit, she said it could not enforce the installation of bathrooms.
Graham Mansions was bought by St Ermins Property Company in 1988. The block is managed by McDowells, a firm of chartered surveyors. Geoffrey Haig, of McDowells, refused to say who owned St Ermins. But a check at Companies House revealed it is part of the Pears family empire.
Every share in the company belongs to the Pearses. Last year St Ermins, which has four directors, Clarice, Mark, Stephen and David Pears, made profits of pounds 2.2m. The Pears' main company, William Pears Family Holdings, has assets of pounds 122m and last year made profits of pounds 9.7m. The four directors of the holding company were each paid pounds 350,000. The companies own properties across London. Their head office is in a Hampstead mews, close to the family's gracious homes. The family does not court publicity.
Under the terms of Graham Mansions' leases, the landlord is responsible for external repairs and maintenance.
Tenants have objected to the proposed rent increase, sending a list of grievances to the local Rent Officer. They include subsidence, causing cracks and rising floors, poor electrical wiring, dangerous windows,rotten sills, communal staircases that are wooden and could be a fire risk, leaking sewage, smelly drains and plumbing that overflows into the garden.
As flats fall vacant, they are being refurbished and bathrooms are being installed. One tenant, who did not want to be named, claimed in a letter to the Rent Officer that the proposed pounds 500 figure "is being based on empty flats that have been completely gutted and refurbished with the benefit of bathrooms, fitted kitchens, central heating and carpeting, throughout, and which I consider grossly unfair".
Two years ago St Ermins applied to have the rents increased to pounds 300 per month, up from pounds 80. The tenants appealed and after visiting the flats, the Rent Assessment Committee settled on pounds 110.50. The committee said the block was "in a state of obvious disrepair".
At the Pears company headquarters last Friday, a woman said that none of the family was there. Asked if they would talk about Graham Mansions, she said: "You need to write in, unfortunately. They won't take calls directly."