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‘Social Landlords Simply Don’t Care’

Taj Ali

Many of Britain's housing association tenants are forced to live in homes that are infested, overrun with mould, and on the brink of collapse. We speak to campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa about the fight for change.

Kwajo's videos have garnered millions of views, prompting responses from the housing associations whose neglect they expose. (PA)

Britain’s social housing has been in short supply for decades. Housing charity Shelter says that more than one million households across the country are waiting for social homes, while the pace of sale or demolition far outstrips the rate at which new social homes are being built. Those that already exist, meanwhile, are often in a desperate state of neglect and disrepair—a state worsened by housing associations that refuse to listen to the concerns of tenants. This is a situation housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa is fighting to change.

Tweneboa, a twenty-three year old Londoner, has lived in social housing for the majority of his life. ‘We were living in a converted car garage with the garage door still on,’ he tells Tribune of the temporary accommodation he first lived in with his father and two sisters. ‘It was disgusting. There was mould everywhere. It was just completely uninhabitable.’

After a couple of years in the converted garage, Kwajo and his family moved into a flat on the Eastfields Estate in South London, run by housing association Clarion. Initially hopeful that this permanent accommodation would be an improvement on his previous home, Kwajo’s hopes were quickly dashed.

‘It was in complete disrepair,’ he says. ‘It was full of cockroaches, mice, damp, and mould. Our ceiling was missing at one point over winter, and the kitchen and the bathroom couldn’t be used. It was unfit for use.’

It was in this home that Kwajo’s father was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. ‘The cancer was progressing to stage three, and he was receiving medical treatment for it within these conditions, which he shouldn’t have been,’ Kwajo explains. Despite the family’s pleas, he says the housing association running the estate failed to fix the problems plaguing the flat. Kwajo’s father passed away in February 2020.

‘My ceiling leak happened immediately after,’ Kwajo continues. ‘They wouldn’t come out until that August to take the ceiling down.’ After failing to inform Kwajo that the ceiling was asbestos, he says, the association left dust everywhere in the flat and refused to replace it for another four months.

Paired with the death of his father, the state of his home and the neglect of the housing association had a detrimental impact on Kwajo’s wellbeing. ‘My mental health was in such a state. I contacted the housing association numerous times, but they were completely useless.

‘Nothing was done,’ he adds. ‘We were left in that situation for ages.’

Taking a Stand

A Chartered Institute of Environmental Health report released in November last year found that eleven percent of all homes in England are ‘poor quality’ and contain one or more category one serious hazard, according to the Housing Health Safety Rating System. Recent media investigations, meanwhile, have exposed particular instances of neglect and disrepair in both social and council housing—a problem that even the Tories have acknowledged. But it’s a national scandal Kwajo is determined to keep highlighting until something is actually done.

‘Housing associations simply don’t care,’ he says. ‘They have no interest. That’s something that needs to change.’

It was in a bid to pressure his housing association to act that Kwajo first began recording the state of disrepair faced in so many flats on his estate. Since then, his videos have gathered up millions of views and garnered national interest, landing him interviews with major outlets and a £10,000 charitable pledge from Dragons’ Den investor Steven Bartlett.

‘The last video I did was viewed by over two million people within twenty-four hours, and the housing association got back to me as a result,’ Kwajo tells Tribune. ‘My social media platform has allowed people to be heard. It can’t be covered up. People are genuinely angered by what they’re seeing.’

Kwajo’s videos have exposed the horrendous conditions in which some of Britain’s most vulnerable families reside: damp, mould, collapsing construction, infestations. ‘There was a lady whose toilet and bath filled up with sewage and I had to help out,’ he says. ‘There was another case where there were cockroaches under a child’s bed. Part of the ceiling was falling down on one of the residents.’ Another flat, he adds, had sewage pouring down the kitchen and bathroom walls from a burst sewage pipe—and the housing association didn’t want to do anything about it.

Housing associations have in turn tried to brush these issues under the carpet, but Kwajo’s videos have made undeniable the industry-wide problem of institutional neglect. It’s a culture difficult to justify in the midst of widespread public anger.

‘The general public are calling these housing associations out, and it can’t be ignored. I hope that the housing associations see the posts and it shakes them up, because at the end of the day it’s them who are letting residents down and putting their health and safety at risk.’

The Price of Poor Housing

Poor housing has a significant impact on the health and educational outcomes of the children who live in it. A report released by Shelter in 2006 found that poor housing conditions increased the risk of severe ill-health or disability by up to twenty-five percent during childhood and early adulthood; children living in bad housing are more likely to have respiratory problems like coughing and asthmatic wheezing, to be at risk of infections, and to have mental health problems. And by increasing the likelihood of missing regular school, these health problems in turn had a detrimental impact on their education.

Things, Kwajo’s work shows, have not got better since then. ‘I can see it for myself in terms of the impact it had on me,’ he says of such interconnected issues. ‘When I meet tenants, I can see the impact in terms of their physical health, but their mental health as well. I can see how broken they are.

‘Not only do I see it, but I relate to it. It’s almost triggering because that feeling comes back to me in that situation. I remember how horrible it was, and that’s why I push so hard. No one should have to deal with that.’

And while the calls for new affordable homes have been building, construction in and of itself is not a panacea for the crisis in Britain’s housing—particularly when more and more developers are cutting corners when it comes to design. That happens, of course, at the expense of the working-class families who live in the homes.

‘There are contractors employed by social housing associations to use the cheapest materials,’ explains Kwajo. ‘The problem is that even if these estates are regenerated, if they aren’t built properly, all these new builds fall into disrepair. How can you build houses that after only being around for five years are already falling apart?’

Britain is in urgent need not only of a higher quantity of homes, then, but a higher quality of homes too. And while many have argued that austerity rendered councils and housing associations victims of circumstance, Kwajo believes that questions of funding have to be backed up by questions of care. ‘Many are aware of the situation residents are living in, and they do nothing,’ he says. ‘It’s never a priority.’

Changing Housing Culture

A recent report by the Building Research Establishment found that poor housing costs the NHS in England £1.4 billion a year. Unsafe and overcrowded housing was marked as an exacerbating factor in the pandemic, too, proving the direct impact bad homes can have for situations of life or death.

Given both the financial and human cost of poor social housing, then, Kwajo is adamant that this issue should be treated as a matter of urgency. ‘I’m trying to use my platform to shake up housing associations, councils, and MPs, and get them to resolve this issue. I aim to get their attention if they’re not doing a good enough job—and I will.’

Kwajo’s hard work is admirable, but in an ideal world, social housing tenants failed by the system shouldn’t have to document their own struggles. Now more than ever, we need decent, affordable and secure homes for all.