Unlawful fees, holes in walls and a flood take shine off ‘luxury’ rooms

Ben James Smith/Estateducation

Ben James Smith at The District on Unthank Road (bottom left). Tenants have complained about the state of accommodation there and at Velocity Student. - Credit: Archant/Alex Ward/Velocity Student

With their slick websites and beautiful photos, tenants at two newly-developed Norwich apartment blocks thought they had found their ideal rooms when they moved in last year. 

But they have hit out at the company and businessman behind the developments over problems with the buildings and rows over letting fees. Tenants have made a series of complaints to authorities.   

Norwich City Council confirmed it is investigating one of the properties and had been in touch with “numerous” tenants.  

Businessman Ben James Smith’s company, Estateducation Ltd, bought and redeveloped Bristol House on Unthank Road in 2017, opening it in 2020. 

Ben James has developed a fromer MJB hotel on Unthank road into shared accomodation called the distr

Ben James Smith developed the former MJB hotel on Unthank Road into shared accommodation called The District but tenants have made a series of complaints - Credit: Archant

Under the previous owner it had been the site of a controversial hotel called MJB where neighbours frequently complained about alleged drug-use and prostitution. 

But Mr Smith transformed it into a “co-living” space for professionals with 26 rooms and renamed it The District.  

Alex Ward, a bar supervisor, moved in last September paying £600 a month for a room. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward who lived at The District - Credit: Alex Ward

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“I saw it advertised on Zoopla and the pictures were incredible,” the 28-year old said. “It was only when I moved in that I noticed problems.”  

In an email to Estateducation on September 12, just after he moved in, he sent photos of a hole in the wall in his room. 

He also took photos showing holes in the wall and ceiling of a communal area and a damaged door lock and sent them to Norwich City Council in October.  

Alex Ward

Photos taken by Alex Ward in his complaint about the state of the property - Credit: Alex Ward

That same month his radiator fell off the wall. He said it fell off when he put a towel on it, but Estateducation blamed him for the damage and seven months later it still had not been repaired.  

Alex Ward

The radiator which fell off the wall in Alex Ward's room - Credit: Alex Ward

Mr Smith said check in reports had been completed by independent third parties which showed no issues when Mr Ward moved in.  

Unlawful fees 

According to his tenancy agreement and the Tenancy Fees Act, Mr Ward's deposit should have been protected in a protection scheme within 30 days of moving in.  

Documents show that he paid the deposit on September 12 but it was not protected until February 2021. Mr Smith said an “administration issue” was to blame. 

When he left last month, Mr Ward was told by Estateducation that he would get £56 of his £600 deposit back - something he is challenging. “It is completely unacceptable,” he said. 

He is also being charged a “check out” fee of £75 by Estateducation, according to a breakdown of the charges. The Tenant Fees Act 2019 made almost all letting agent fees unlawful, but three Estateducation tenancy agreements seen by this newspaper state tenants will be charged a “check out” fee of £75 for checking the inventory. Mr Smith said the fees had not been charged. 

Alex Ward

The email sent to Alex Ward showing a "check out fee" had been deducted from his deposit by Estateducation. Mr Smith denied any check out fees were charged. - Credit: Alex Ward

But another tenant Joel Curtis, who has recently moved out, was also charged a “check out” fee when he left The District, according to emails from Estateducation. He is also disputing the charge. 

Industry body, Property Mark, confirmed that both of these fees would go against the Tenant Fees Act 2019.  

Drugs and fights  

The District is advertised as being for working professionals only but emails to Estateducation show Mr Curtis, 31, who works in the fuel industry, has complained about alleged drug taking, fights and anti-social behaviour. 

He moved in last April as the first lockdown began but said he moved out because the “reputation of the place has gone from bad to worse”.  

“They really lay on that this is a lovely spot and they were wanting to shake off the bad reputation that MJB had here,” he said. “But there was an attack on another tenant by a druggie. I have seen two evictions there which it seems were brought on by drug use, and fighting in corridors.” 

He complained to Estateducation in January and sent photos seen by this newspaper of blood on a door. Estateducation told him that they were evicting the tenant.  

In December he also complained to Estateducation about drug taking. 

Police confirmed they had been called out twice to The District in 2021 - once to an assault and once to a report that a wanted person was there. 

In response, Mr Smith’s solicitor said: “As the landlord, there is limited action our client can take regarding this.” 

Student rooms ‘far from finished’  

Three miles further west, Mr Smith’s company transformed the old Freed Man pub on St Mildreds Road, Earlham, into rooms for students, called Velocity Student. 

The Velocity Student building, formerly the Freed Man pub, Earlham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Velocity Student building, formerly the Freed Man pub, Earlham. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

First year medical student Sade, 23, moved in in September 2020. 

She immediately complained about the state of the former pub. She claimed building work was still underway and the student accommodation, described as “luxury” was anything but.  

A long email sent by students, including Sade, to Estateducation on October 16 outlined a string of problems, including the front door not locking, dirty rooms, and the heating and Wi-Fi not working. The students said in the email that they were “shocked to discover that the accommodation was far from finished”.  

Velocity Student

Photos taken by students at Velocity Student. They have complained about the state of the accommodation. - Credit: Submitted

But Mr Smith denied this. 

He said: “It was a brand-new student block and the building regulations completion certificate suggests there were not any of these issues.” 

The students moved in in mid-September and emails show the intercom on the door was not installed until mid-October. Sade said it meant she did not feel safe in her own room.  

Then in March this year videos taken by tenants show water pouring through the ceiling of a corridor. 

Mr Smith said: “As inconvenient as it may be, properties do tend to have maintenance issues. The plumbing issue was attended to with the leak being fixed on the same day.” 

Flooding at Velocity Student

Flooding in March at Velocity Student - another one of Estateducation's developments in Earlham - Credit: Submitted

Sade left a review online outlining her experiences in November last year, but she was threatened with legal action by Mr Smith if she did not remove it.  

“If you continue with this crusade, I will be coming to Velocity Student so we can deal with this matter face to face,” Mr Smith wrote to her in one email.  

She reported him to police for alleged harassment. In response, Mr Smith confirmed: “The police in turn called our office and asked us not to communicate with her further.” 

The medical student said: “It stresses me out as I’m meant to be doing my school work and I’ve had to deal with all this. 

“I don’t understand how this building was signed off as being ready for students and I’m disappointed Norwich City Council has not taken action.” 

Council investigates 

She raised the issues with both Norwich City Council and her students’ union at the University of East Anglia (UEA). 

The UEA said Velocity Student was not a member of its accreditation scheme and therefore it did not promote or recommend them. 

A city council spokesman said: “We’re aware of the concerns and issues at this property and an investigation is ongoing. 

“We are working with the managing agent and a number of tenants to resolve the issues and will take formal action if necessary.” 

The council said it first received complaints in September last year and had since spoken to “numerous” tenants. 

The fire service has also visited and said: “We have routinely engaged with the responsible people within this particular building to ensure they are following the standards.” 

Mr Smith responded by saying: “It is usual for the fire service to visit a property in the event a fire alarm goes off." 

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