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Social housing tenant’s cry for help: Get me out of this ‘hellhole’ flat

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Constance Baker* feels she takes her life into her hands when she uses her bathroom. In June, following three years’ of leaks, the ceiling collapsed, showering the units with debris. Now, when she uses the lavatory, or takes a bath, she has to protect herself from water drizzling from the flat above.

The Kent flat is owned and managed by London & Quadrant (L&Q), one of the UK’s largest housing associations, and she says that years of unresolved damp and defects have led her to contemplate suicide.

The 60-year-old, who is bipolar, was moved to the property in 2018 after leaving a women’s refuge, also run by L&Q, and claims it was damp from the outset.

“I was told that it was that, or nothing,” she says. “The mould has got so bad it’s in my food cupboards, destroying my possessions, and my mental and physical health, but when I complained I was just given a bottle of mould spray.”

Matters came to a head in June when leaks from the flat above caused the bathroom ceiling to collapse. L&Q removed the debris, but declined repeated requests to move her to new accommodation.

It only accepted that the conditions were insanitary when the Observer intervened, and is now seeking alternative accommodation. It has also agreed to pay compensation for the damage to her possessions.

An Observer exposé of appalling living conditions in 2018 prompted L&Q to commission an independent investigation, and it promised reforms following the investigator’s critical findings. Three years on, it is still failing to address reports of unsafe and insanitary accommodation, according to tenants who have contacted us.

Antaine O’Briain, a resident of an L&Q block in west London, says he and fellow residents have spent six years trying to resolve damp problems and rotting windows.

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“Rainwater drips on to the electricity meter cupboard. Some residents are scared to open their windows for fear the frame will fall out, as has happened already. None of the flats has adequate central heating, and the basement is so overrun with vermin refuse collectors refuse to enter the bin area,” he says. “L&Q promised renovations would begin in 2018 and then, in 2019, but nothing happened and the place is falling apart.”

View image in fullscreenA window frame in O’Briain’s building in London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

L&Q blamed the delays on the planning application process. Scaffolding was erected last month, two weeks after the Observer got involved.

For Baker, history was repeating itself. Last year, the Observer publicised the plight of her daughter, a tenant in a different L&Q estate, who fled her flat and spent two years in a women’s refuge when she feared an abusive ex-partner had tracked her down. L&Q refused to rehouse her, and threatened eviction over rent arrears. She was eventually moved after we intervened. Days after L&Q agreed to move Baker, she, too, received a letter threatening eviction unless she paid rental arrears.

Her payments were, in fact, up to date, despite the fact that she’d frequently had to move in with family to escape the damp. L&Q admitted the letter had been sent in error.

L&Q commissioned a second independent review following our report, which questioned whether the charity was living up to its values.

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Housing associations were created as charitable operations in the 1960s to provide affordable homes to low-income households. They now house 6 million tenants, but an increasing focus on developments for private sale, to make up for government subsidy cuts, has prompted accusations they are neglecting their social remit.

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L&Q saw a 23% rise in its gross earnings in the last financial year, after trimming £66m from its operational and maintenance budget to weather the pandemic, and its operating surplus rose to £307m.

View image in fullscreenThe electrical room in O’Briain’s building. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Last year, L&Q’s new chief executive, Fiona Fletcher-Smith, committed to building 10,000 homes a year to outstrip Barratt Homes as the country’s biggest developer.

Tenants, like Baker, feel they are paying the price. “They didn’t listen to my daughter. They didn’t listen to me,” she says. “My home is a hellhole, but it got to the point where I didn’t have the strength to fight any more.”

L&Q admits it let Baker down. “We were aware of a damp problem before the resident moved in,” it says. “At the time we believed this was caused by flooding in an upstairs bathroom, and carried out repairs and cleaning accordingly. It’s clear these weren’t enough, and that we should have carried out more substantial investigations to stop the damp recurring.”

The association says that it has devised a five-year plan, following our 2018 exposé, which will prioritise investment in the safety of its residents, and existing homes and services. This month, it confirmed it has slashed its home-building target to focus on its customer service, and that it plans to invest £1.9bn over seven years to improve living conditions for tenants.

Gerri Scott, appointed to the newly created role of group director of customer services, told the Observer that more frontline staff would be deployed regionally so residents’ concerns were more readily heeded, and that a resident services board comprising tenants and leaseholders had been launched to ensure residents can hold the executive to account.

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“We recognise not everyone has had a good experience, as the Observer’s inquiries demonstrate,” she says. “L&Q is staffed by hardworking people who want to make a positive difference for our residents, but there have been clear cases where our structure and systems have held them back.”

Last year, the government published a white paper aimed at reforming the relationship between tenants and social landlords, and overhauling regulation, but it admits that legislation could take several years.

According to the Regulator of Social Housing, sponsored by the government, landlords should already be reforming their treatment of tenants. It says it expects all registered social-housing landlords to be aiming to complete repairs and improvements needed the first time, and “resolving complaints they receive promptly, politely and fairly”.

It adds: “The proposed changes to regulation are intended to ensure tenants’ voices are heard … we urge landlords to make any necessary improvements now, ahead of legislation,” it adds.

* Name has been changed

This article was amended on 2 September 2021 to clarify details of the resident services board set up by L&Q.