Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj report on how the tragedy at Grenfell Tower still hasn’t led to change for others living in poor conditions.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, there was lots of talk about giving a voice to social housing tenants and the need to take their concerns more seriously.
Two years on, how much has really changed?
Michelle Fox and her four children moved into their housing association home in 2015. It quickly became apparent that the property had a serious problem with damp.
“Most rooms were damp,” she says. “But there was also groundwater coming up through the concrete floor.”
She made a number of complaints to the housing association but she says that, rather than taking action, they told her they would monitor the problem for two years.
We have to change the culture in social housing so people are treated with respect.Karim Mussilhy, vice-chair, Grenfell United
“There were puddles on the carpet,” she says. “We lost two sofas and my feet were always wet.”
Eventually, three years after her first complaint, the housing association moved the family into temporary accommodation while they repaired the floor.
Things didn’t get any better.
The new house also had problems with mould and damp and Michelle says that old windows let the cold in.
“The cold was brutal,” she says. “And there was no oven, so we lived off junk food for months.”
Even once back in their home, Michelle says there continued to be issues with the floor. As a last resort, she put in for an exchange and moved out of the property last month.
“Nothing has changed [since Grenfell],” Michelle says.
“They’re dealing with society’s most vulnerable people, but there’s a ‘put up and shut up’ attitude.”
Emma (not her real name) and her teenage daughter, spent two years living in temporary accommodation on the Aylesbury Estate in London while they waited for social housing.
In February, during freezing conditions, a burst pipe meant that tenants on the estate were left without heating and hot water for eight days. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. We spoke to Emma at the time.
“We continuously have heating and hot water shut downs,” she said. “I can wake up one morning and go to have a wash and there’s no hot water. This is how we’ve lived for the past two years.”
During the shut downs, the council provided tenants with electric heaters but Emma said she was concerned with the cost of using them.
“I’m having to use hot water bottles, extra clothing, fan heaters and I’ve also brought a mattress into the living room so we can stay in one room. I can’t afford to have these heaters running all over the house.”
Another resident on the estate told us there were holes in one of her bedroom walls which let rain water into the flat. It was so bad that they had to stop using the room and, instead, she and her three children all had to sleep in the same bedroom.
Both she and Emma said they made repeated complaints to the council over the two years they were living on the estate.
“I’m trying to deal with all this the best I know how, while still trying to remain an example for my daughter,” Emma said.
“I’m trying to teach her that you go to work so you can have nice things, but living in the conditions we are living in, I don’t know if I’m doing a good job of that anymore.”
In recent months, both families were moved into permanent homes. But, social housing tenants across the country face similar problems.
New research from the housing charity Shelter shows that 56% of social renters in England have experienced a problem with their home in the past three years.
The issues included gas leaks, faulty lifts and electrical hazards. One in 10 of those people had to report the problem more than 10 times.
The survey also found that half of all people asked had less trust in the Government to keep social tenants safe in their homes since Grenfell, and another third believed the Government’s response to the tragedy had made no difference.
Christopher Mosley is Chair of the Homes in Sedgemoor arms-length management organisation in Somerset. He’s been a council house tenant for the last 40 years. He says things have got a lot worse for social housing tenants in recent years.
“There’s bad housing, a lot more poverty and people just being ignored,” he says. “When the terrible fire happened at Grenfell it brought attention to social housing but it hasn’t lasted. People think it’s yesterday’s news.”
Christopher is also part of the group Benefit to Society, which campaigns to end the stigma of social tenants. This month he and others will be visiting Parliament to raise the issues faced by those living in council or housing association homes.
They’re dealing with society’s most vulnerable people, but there’s a ‘put up and shut up’ attitude.Michelle
“We’ll be telling them that programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ should never be aired again and that press and politicians should end the stigma associated with council housing,” he says.
They will also be travelling around the country to speak to other tenants groups.
“We’ll be going all over and, after each meeting, we’ll be putting on an afternoon for residents so we can talk to them about the issues they face. This is about us coming together and raising our voices.”
The London residents and campaigners group Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) say that its members continue to face overcrowding, poor responses to repair issues and long council waiting lists.
“HASL members have always understood the importance of good, secure council housing,” spokesperson for the group, Elizabeth Wyatt, says. “While there were some claims that attitudes towards council tenants softened after Grenfell, national and local politicians’ contempt for social housing is clear.”
This week, the Grenfell survivors group, Grenfell United, projected messages onto tower blocks which they believe are still unsafe.
One read: “Two years after Grenfell and the fire doors in this building still aren’t fit for purpose.”
Another said: “Two years after Grenfell this building still has no sprinklers.”
Vice-chair of Grenfell United Karim Mussilhy, who lost his uncle in the fire, said he had visited residents in Newcastle and heard how their concerns were being ignored.
“That’s what happened to residents in Grenfell before the fire.
“We have to change the culture in social housing so people are treated with respect. Two years after Grenfell, we are coming together and our voices can only get louder.”