Daniela is a local authority tenant in South London. She spent 20 years living in her family home in a tower block in South London before was moved out by the landlord, Southwark Council in 2017, due to fire and structural safety issues. She and her young daughter were then moved to another block in the borough, which also has significant disrepair problems.
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Hi and welcome to the FixMyBlock podcast. Today we’re speaking to Daniela, who is a council tenant in a block in the London Borough of Southwark. Daniela, thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me!
Your journey in housing has been quite an eventful one. I know that you were decanted from the tower block that you grew up in because it had fire and structural safety problems. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what that part of your journey was like?
Well, I lived in those blocks. That was like the first block I lived in. I think I arrived in the UK with my Mum in 1998, and we used to live in the hostels behind the big Iceland on the Old Kent road, and the first ever property we got was that building in the Ledbury Estate and we lived there our whole lives and always had problems with issues with leakages. I just remember from a young age with my Mum, I remember one Christmas Eve so much water had leaked and has gone all over our Christmas food and my mother always used to get stressed. We had things blow up, like a kettle and the cooker being broken. Just suffering through a lot of mould issues, especially in the front entrance, it used to be so bad with mould. But it was home – you tried to make it your home and they were big flats and I remember when I went to Ledbury, it was a big community so everyone knew each other, people had lived there for years. So yeah, you had the issues but you were happy. It’s just always asking the council to come and fix the heating or fix the mould and they’ll just paint over basically, come and clean the mould or paint over it, or plaster over it and then they’d be mould underneath the plaster.
After Grenfell, I think people were so worried about what happened there, then obviously, with Ledbury, it just showed the risks that were happening. It just felt like the council just wasn’t taking it seriously, like people’s concerns. It was giving a lot of people stress and anxiety, like my Mum suffers from PTSD, so that made it worse for her. The whole thing feels like if a fire happened or an explosion, it could collapse and just finding out that people had information about this and never done anything. It’s basically just the whole life story when it comes to the council, they see a problem and instead of actually using the money to fix it or try and do something is that they try and get the cheap way to basically just cover over the cracks.
During that time, obviously your mum was the main tenant, but do you remember her struggling or trying to get repairs done or dealing with the council and what that was like over over those years?
Yeah, I do remember. I was very heavily involved and so was my sister because my Mum, when she came to UK, English was not her first language. Neither was it for me and my sister but it was much easier for us to catch on. So I just remember from the age of when I was in Year 7 or Year 8, I was dealing with the council, sending emails, getting repairs. We had a lot of problems with the windows, especially the kitchen window would break or it would get stuck. The kitchen would be the most place where we would get leaks, and in the bathroom and the toilet. It’s just reporting those issues. Mould in the front entrance that was really, really bad. In front entrance you’d have a closet, which we would use for storage and the mould there, it just stank, it was terrible. I never had mould in my room but my Mum had a bit of mould and I think she just got on with it, in the sense that she would just always clean it and paint it. We always reported it to Southwark Council and it was just always an issue. Someone would come and just paint over it, not really investigate. We had the light bulb sort of explode in the toilet due to so much leakages coming through and they just got rid of all of that and just replaced it and just paint over stuff. That’s all the council knows how to do. I remember my Mum had so many issues with them, she got solicitors involved, so she won the case with Southwark Council because of how many times she reported it, but nothing was really done. She reported about cracks, because we had cracks, we had cracks in the front room and in bedrooms. I just remember, it’s so weird – I could hear my neighbours downstairs, I could have a conversation and my neighbours downstairs could hear me that’s how bad I think the cracks were that we could all hear each other! I just think Southwark Council, most councils, to them it’s just ‘oh it’s council living, oh, yeah, well we will be there the next day or within a week’. Then they just look at something really quickly, or they hire people and they just try to fix it the way that’s as quickly as possible and cheapest.
So you mentioned that from Year 7 and 8 so I guess around the age of sort of 11/ 12 that you were writing emails to the council on your Mum’s behalf, in terms of trying to get repairs done, which is quite shocking. But you’ve now been rehoused by the same landlord into another block, which also suffers from disrepair issues. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re dealing with in your new home now?
Yeah, so I had to fight Southwark Council to leave Ledbury. They put me in another part of Southwark. I’ve been in temporary accommodation for the last three years and then they moved me to a different temporary accomodation. Right now I have such bad mould, in my kitchen, it’s disgusting, literally it’s disgusting. It’s like brown with black and it’s peeled all the sort of paper wall from the kitchen. I get it bad in the front room, in my bedroom is really bad. You can see the leakages, like where my lightbulb is in my bedroom right now there’s like little brown stains on the ceiling. Then in the corners of each side of the wall, there’s really bad mould stains, which I clean, but they still come back, it’s really bad. My front room, my daughter’s room, I just basically got to keep cleaning it all the time, it just keeps coming back. I’ve got it in the bathroom. I think this is the worst mould I’ve ever had in accommodation, which I pay like a grand a month for. I’ve got mould in the toilet, which is really bad. And it’s so much mould that it gets so wet, that it wets my whole floor and the floor is stained from wet marks. That’s how bad it is. It’s quite frustrating, because I’ve reported it to the council. No one ever really comes over or really does anything about it. I pay a grand for where I live, and to just live with mould basically.
You said that you reported it to the council. So when when you have these sorts of problems, what are the routes that you usually take to get it fixed?
I initially send them an email, I’ve called sometimes before, but it’s usually in an email or talking to my housing officer who’s come and viewed it and just goes ‘oh yeah yeah, we’ll get someone to fit something, uhhh maybe open your windows’. Then it’s just like – ok it’s freezing, it’s getting freezing cold and those situations don’t really help, does it. Then I have my neighbour coming from upstairs, saying that she is getting leaks to her bathroom. I’m going through the same situation that my Mum was going through, when I was a child, and now I’m living it with my child, which is it’s like, nothing ever changes, you sort of lose faith in councils and nothing is ever really done properly.
How many times would you say that you’ve reported the damp and mould that’s affecting your flat since you moved into that property?
I don’t know, maybe three times. I’ve had the Housing Officer come and he’s taken photos. I’ve taken photos and emailed it. But yeah, nothing’s been done. I’ve only moved into his property in November.
So about a year now, almost a year, and nothing’s really changed. Have you had a chance to look at the FixMyBlock website before?
Yeah, I’ve been able to view, skim it and read some things.
So basically the situation that you’re describing is exactly the type of thing that we wanted to tackle. Obviously, myself as a council tenant, I know what you’re going through. These are quite common problems, unfortunately. I think you’ve really emphasised that frustration of reporting something, doing the right thing, but nothing ever gets fixed. Or if it does get fixed, it’s just patch up repairs that don’t really last long time. So part of the idea behind FixMyBlock was to be able to empower tenants and residents to take action on issues of disrepair. So we have services on there, for example, like template letters that you can write to your landlord. We have case studies from other tenants of little tips and tricks and things that they’ve tried that have worked, that we hope that people can take inspiration and ideas from. We also have a number of other features on there, including sort of case studies on pests and lots of different issues and legal advice on lots of different issues. Information about getting in touch with the Housing Ombudsman or taking legal action under the Homes (Fitness for Habitation) Act. So we hope that it really just sort of, cuts through the jargon and empowers residents really.
Out of the things that I’ve mentioned, is there anything that you think that you might use or that you that you might find useful?
Yeah, I think the letter template, I think that would be helpful, because sometimes you get quite emotional about these things, and you write things, but sometimes when it’s a template it’s more, sort of structured to basically tackle the issues and get the council’s attention. I think that is good. And just having the advice, because I think sometimes people feel so.. I feel that I have dealt with the council for a very long time now. Sometimes people who have not dealt with them before or are unsure feel so little compared to the council and then just think – oh okay, there’s nothing that can be done or, I’ve done as much as I can do. But to be honest the council has a huge responsibility for these buildings that they rent to people and don’t do nothing about it. But yeah, I think the letter templates.
So that’s something you would use and, or and maybe perhaps recommend to your neighbours, and people that you come across that are facing similar things?
I suppose the other element of FixMyBlock is that it really focuses as well on the importance of collective action. And that’s not always easy, particularly in this COVID era, you know, it’s very difficult to go around and knock on neighbour’s doors, or have a face-to-face conversation and ask people ‘Are you suffering from the same problem?’. But that’s something that we talk about the importance of, perhaps joining, or starting a Tenants and Residents Association or being part of an Action Group. I understand that in your previous block, that you were part of an action group or sort of, a collective of residents that came together and took action against the landlord. From your experience of that, what would you say are the benefits of teaming up with your neighbours to take action as a collective, as opposed to doing it on your own?
I think from that experience, it helps because you get to talk to your other neighbours and realise you’re not the only ones going through that issue. It sort of helps for the council to listen, because I think if it’s just one person, sort of, it’s not – I feel like, especially with Southwark Council in my experience, it has to be sort of, it has to get so bad that you have to shame them, for them to do something. If it’s a group of people, it’s a lot more voices, it gives a lot of power and a lot more opinions of how to sort of get the council’s attention and get them to do something about all these problems going on with mould and cracks and basically just unsuitable housing situations which are not acceptable.
So you were part of a protest on your former estate. What was that like, to go out there with your neighbours and protest?
It was good. I think that you just feel like people aren’t listening to your voice, you sort of just want the council to just listen and realise, come on, now you’ve got to do something. It sort of brings that community spirit back, which has been lost, I think throughout the years, and it just makes you feel like you’re not alone, and you can voice your issues and get people to listen. The right people to listen and do something about it and actually go – no, this is not right. It’s not just happening to me. It’s happening to my neighbours. It’s not correct that in 2020 people are living like this. You can’t just paint over things. You can’t. Mould affects people’s health, it affects people’s mental health. It can’t be acceptable that people are living in situations and paying the rents that they do in London to councils and they’re not taking responsibility for anything they do.
You’ve, through various situations, had legal advice on your housing situation and taken – as you mentioned with the case with your mother, taken action against the council. What would you say to other tenants who weren’t sure about the taking the legal route? Is it something that you would recommend? How did you feel about taking that path?
I think, yeah, it’s scary. But I feel like at the end of the day, coming back to the council saying it’s backlogs due to COVID, it’s not. It’s just, they’re just using a pandemic to make an excuse for their laziness, and their negligence to their housing situation. That’s just excuses, because moulds and cracks has not been happening since 2019 / 2020. It’s been happening for many years, they just paint over stuff. And I think if you keep suffering from things which are really affecting you, you’ve done everything that you can and Southwark Council’s not listening, then you’ve got to take the legal measures, because at the end of the day – when the council is not fixing your mould, you’re going to be cleaning it, you’re going to be spending your own money, because that’s what I’ve done, that’s what my Mum’s done, you will be spending your own money cleaning that mould, then painting over it because you want your house to be nice. Everyone wants a nice house and for it to be presentable. So you’re spending money, which is already on top of paying a rent for place which is not suitable. I just remember with my Mum, and yeah, it’s scary but there’s a reason why you’ve been contacting this council, you’ve done everything on your side correctly for them to do something and they’ve failed. So when they’re failing you, they have to become accountable for their actions. Because if you miss a week’s rent, or you miss a month’s rent, they have no problem getting you evicted, or getting lawyers and getting all that stuff. So why is it on the other hand, when they’re failing several times when it comes to situations with repairs it’s not the same?
With FixMyBlock, as I mentioned, it’s a service that is designed to empower council tenants like you and I. I know you’ve had a look at the website – is there anything that you feel could be added to it, that you think you would need, to feel like there’s a service, there’s someone behind you, there’s someone on your side, and there’s someone backing you up on this? Even though it’s a website rather than an actual person. What would you like to see from a service like that?
That’s actually a tough question. Because I think if it’s an older generation, I think it’s quite hard for them to access maybe the website and could be much harder for them to get information or contact their housing service, or the council through email or doing the things like that. So perhaps maybe if it’s older tenants suffering with stuff like this, maybe getting little newsletters to them, to their property, which is what used to happen before – you used to get newsletters, didn’t you? You would get told about what was happening in the estate and you’d get contact numbers or ‘contact this person if you’re having issues’ and stuff like that. I think that that would be really good for people who are not good at social media, because not everyone is. I think the website is good for people who are a bit more savvy, or maybe just having it more on social media so it’s more easy access and having links to – okay, this is where you can go to, but I think it’s pretty good to be honest. Anything further would be having someone on the phone being like, advising you! I think the website does a good job.
I think that’s something that unfortunately, COVID-19 has really compounded or prevented – the ability for us to go out there and door knock and leaflet. So we’ve had to rely very heavily on our online presence. But one of the things we have done and I know, early on in the conversation, you mentioned that English isn’t your Mum’s first language. We’ve translated FixMyBlock into 20 languages. And although it is online, we have also sent it out to the Citizen Advice Bureau’s and the Law Centres Networks around the country. So we hope that if people are presenting either on the telephone or in person, at those community hubs, that someone would be there to support them through the online journey and using those tools. But yeah, I think some door knocking is in order. And you can come along and join us if you like!
Yes, I think especially older generations, because I’ve been in situations where I’ve gone to sort of things where if you’re, unfortunately, if you don’t speak up to the council and bother them, they’ll leave you behind and the work that I do as a civil servant, I’ve been in situations where I’ve gone to other councils and I’ve gone to elderly people. People who basically are sort of forgotten about, and they’re living in situations which no one should be ever living in in this time in London, with no heating, or no electricity, or they’ve got mould or cobwebs everywhere. And it’s just like – that’s unacceptable. I would have got it if this was the 1800s, but it’s 2020. You’ve got all this stuff that’s accessible to you, but really is not. Because if you don’t speak up, or you don’t bother the council, you’re sort of left behind. I think the most vulnerable, are the ones that suffer the most. But I think your website is really good. It’s really good for people to access and if they have access to it to definitely take advantage of it. Because it doesn’t hurt to be honest and at the end of the day, you’ve got to hold accountable, if you’re paying for rent, for somewhere you’re living, you’ve got to hold people accountable for them to give you a suitable, safe environment. And that means mould is not safe. It’s not good for your health. Stuff like that isn’t. It’s not good for you. And it’s unacceptable to be living in those sort of housing situations.
Yeah, I think definitely my inspiration for wanting to get involved in this project was just kind of saying ‘enough is enough’. And I saw that many people need someone on their side. Having been in that situation myself, you feel so helpless sometimes and so frustrated. So just having tools at your disposal, I think is sometimes helpful. I wish that we could have a caseworker for everyone who needs support, but I suppose is the best of what we can do for now! So with that, thank you for taking part in the FixMyBlock podcast and for your contributions.
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