Tenant action – tackling disrepair

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Annie Barrett, a tenant of Marsh Drive estate in the London Borough of Barnet joined forces with her neighbours to tackle disrepair in their blocks. We interviewed Annie to find out what action she and her community took.

How long have you lived in the Marsh Drive block?

I moved into Marsh Drive in October 2015 and was moved out just this year, so I was there about four and a half years.

What sort of problems did you have in your flat and how did you address these problems?

There were loads of cockroaches. It was non stop. I knocked on some of the residents’ doors a few times because I lived on the 4​ floor so I was thinking “there’s no way I can be the only person who has these, there’s got to be other people.” When I first did the door knocking which was about a year and a half ago, nobody really said that they had them. I don’t know if that’s because people were embarrassed. But once people did start talking, they started admitting that they had them.

I had lots of cockroaches, mainly in the kitchen and bathroom. There was a central point where the boilers went and that was mainly where I would find them, that area that went up into other people’s flats and from below into my flat.

“One of the local councillors told us to​ ‘Go and get a job’ and we shouldn’t expect to live for free.”

I also had black mould but it got plastered over. That was in my kitchen. I did ask them to treat it, they fitted a (extractor) fan in my kitchen and that was the last I saw of it.

We had rats and mice too. And because the main doors are left open, anybody can just walk in. We used to have people living in our corridors and bin chutes.

When did you first complain to your landlord?

When I had the black mould I complained to Barnet Council as a repair job. They sent someone out and that person said to me “your whole kitchen needs to be pulled apart.” 

​When I got back to Barnet council to say I’d been told that they need to pull out the kitchen because of the black mould, they kept saying that they couldn’t see anything on their system to confirm that.

So I wrote to our local MP Matthew Offord, and he replied via email saying they’ll send someone around and that’s when the extractor fan got fitted. Nothing else. They re-plastered the bits they could reach and that was that.

My neighbour lived two floors down: she had black mould on her concrete wall and she had been dealing with that for years. I’d only just met her. She’d been reporting it year after year and just getting fobbed off basically.

Was there a tenants and residents’ association on your estate?

There was one on the estate but it was more for the secure tenants, there was nothing really there for the non-secure tenants like us and the majority of the estate is non-secure.

My mum said, “That’s not right! Why is it raining inside?”, and I said, “It always does.”

It started around 10 years ago and over time, people moved off the estate. So although they are still recognised as an association, they weren’t really active at all.

So we just decided that we would create our own one for the non-secure tenants and just to help anyone else who is living in those conditions and needs a bit of help, so we are now trying to help the private tenants as well.

Did you meet other residents through shared problems? How did you end up talking together?

We did a bit of door knocking.

The first meeting was in my flat, because we weren’t classed as a residents’ association we just decided to do it in my flat. We didn’t know how many people were going to turn up. I think it was around 20 people the first time.

We came up with a plan that we would knock again on all the doors, so we did.

We just kept adding people, and every time we saw someone we would say “make sure you tell your neighbour” and so people were getting hold of each others numbers and people were asking in the WhatsApp group we set up, “My neighbour has heard what’s going on, can you add them?” and it just expanded.

What was your main method of communication?

It was on WhatsApp. We had our Twitter page ‘The Association of Marsh Drive Residents’ which we used too.

What sort of things did you post on the Twitter page?

I posted some images in the beginning, and my neighbour did too. Once residents started seeing them, they started sharing their pictures with us, saying, “This is what’s going on today” and so everybody was contributing in that way.

But it was my mum who was first to bring it up. I never used to really invite anyone back to my home. It was always just me and my partner and I only had one child at the time, but when my mum came over she said, “That’s not right! Why is it raining inside?” and I said, “It always does.”

We were just used to it. You know when you get used to something it just looks normal to you.

That’s when my mum started getting involved and she started tweeting a lot of stuff.

Then loads of people starting contributing so now we have loads of pictures like the black mould, people with mice, rats, cockroaches, all that kind of stuff is all shared and everyday stuff is shared in the WhatsApp group now.

What sort of response did you get from your Tweets?

When we did big posts, that’s when we would get media interest and attention.

I think they knew that it wasn’t going to go away​, that people were going to keep saying what it’s like here.

Journalists would leave us their mobile number and we would give them a call to arrange for them to come and meet us.

We now have a good relationship with one journalist from the BBC who we got on really well with and he said he will still continue to film with us and will follow up and get our story out there for us.

BBC News headline: “Cockroaches bit my baby’s face”

Did you contact your local councillors?

I’d been in touch with lots of councillors over the years from different areas.

One councillor, Anne Clarke, who covers another area in Cricklewood, saw one of my Mum’s tweets and jumped on it from there.

She’s been excellent. She’s put in FOI requests for us. When we haven’t got any answers from the council, she will go in and either get those answers for us, or try to put them to give us the correct answers. She’s just been trying to make them do the right thing.

Your council, Barnet, is split politically. How did this affect your experience?

A few years ago our local councillors were Labour, after the last election, we got Tory councillors.

One of the local Tory councillors told me when I first met her that I should stop paying my rent. Then when I met her for a second time, she didn’t remember who I was, and she told us to​ ‘Go and get a job’ and we shouldn’t expect to live for free.

She forgot who I was. I had a job actually – I was on maternity leave while all that was going on,but she didn’t see it like that.

But it doesn’t matter what it is – it was an unsafe building and she should have listened to her residents.

Did you get any legal advice or support?

I approached a lawyer about two years ago and they did a 30 minute free consultation for me. They told me that I had a case that could go forward however because I couldn’t get legal aid I would have to pay so that stopped.

Then as a group we spoke to a housing solicitor, and we want to take that forward. We are trying to get the residents to get involved in it and then go back to him.

Did you get in touch with other campaigns or housing groups?

My mum got in touch with Ledbury Action Group after seeing the film they made, ‘​Cracks In The System​’ – when people watched that, they had more of an understanding of the buildings.

When we were trying to explain to our neighbours about Large Panel System blocks and why they shouldn’t have gas, people weren’t really understanding it but when we showed them the video, that’s when they understood it a bit more.

Even I had no idea about any of this before, so I think that made it a bit more understandable. My mum was getting information from housing groups and then reporting it back to us so we had a better understanding of it.

You appeared on Victoria Derbyshire to share your story, alongside former Barnet Mayor Brian Coleman and filmmaker Ken Loach – how do you think this press attention impacted on Barnet Council’s decision making from that point?

I think it was a week or two after we ​appeared on Victoria Derbyshire​ that the council announced that they would be moving everybody out of the building, and if anyone was still in there then their gas supply was going to be removed.​ 

I think they knew that it wasn’t going to go away​, that people were going to keep saying what it’s like here.

When we were describing the problems in the beginning, we weren’t 100% sure if our building was definitely a Large Panel System, so we didn’t really say much about it and I think it was the second time our story was on the BBC, that’s when it got more attention.

You had an independent surveyor who came out to your estate. Was that useful? Would you recommend this to others?

Yes – we didn’t get all the answers. But we went on a walk around the estate and the surveyor showed us things like fire safety things that should have been there on our doors, but weren’t and he was pointing out a lot of things which helped us to say to Barnet Council that we want to see the Fire Risk Assessment to see what’s going on, and how long it has been like this.

Barnet never told us anything about how that building was made, and they never told us that they should’ve done surveys. We might never have known what we know now.

Did Barnet Council turn the gas off in your block, because of the Large Panel System issues?

There is still gas that heats the radiators.

They capped off the gas cookers, so everybody should now have electric cookers instead and they changed the cookers for people who had gas ones.

Barnet Homes said they cut off the gas completely in the empty flats. They put a gas detector in which should shut down any gas leaks.

We’ve asked Barnet Homes what will happen with the tenants who are still there waiting to move out? What will happen to them? We are waiting to hear back.

Did you take any other action?

We went to the council’s housing committee and demanded that we should all get secure tenancies. The answer was no.

Now everyone is just waiting to hear what will be allocated. At the housing committee they said anyone who had been offered a property between December and January would get secure lifetime tenancies, then anyone after that would get a five year tenancy – so it feels like they just make it up as they go along.

They could have offered everybody a secure tenancy, they just chose not to.

What’s the situation for the tenants there now?

There were 130 unsecured tenants that lived on the estate at the beginning of 2020.

I think 20-30 have been moved. The others are waiting to find out what their housing priority is. A lot of people are waiting to be offered properties.

Gather up all the residents and listen to everyone’s stories. Make everyone feel comfortable.

No-one is promised to go into council or housing association homes, they could end up in another long-term temporary accommodation or they could end up having to go into private rented. The council don’t tell people, they just say ‘what we have, we will give’.

I was put into a housing association property. My rent is nearly £1000 a month. I told them ‘I don’t think I can afford it, it’s making me anxious.’

The council told me to apply for Universal Credit. The problem is, if you miss two Universal Credit payments, your account closes. So me and my partner are here now worrying.

It’s a worry each month as we know we can’t afford to pay £975 a month out of our own money. This is a permanent place as well. I have to pay this amount permanently, every month.

To go from council prices to housing association prices is difficult. I was desperate. I wanted to get out of Marsh Drive. Now I’m thinking “oh no, I’m in another flat”.

It’s not a large panel system but I’m right next to the bins and I’m always thinking about cockroaches. It’s in my head. You learn new ways to look at things.

Out of all the action you took, what do you feel was the most effective tool you used?

It was a combination of all of them. The best one is to gather up all the residents and listen to everyone’s stories. Make everyone feel comfortable.

Tell them your personal stories too. Then with their permission, put their stories and images on social media – straight away.

Is there anything you would recommend people don’t do? Or something you would have done differently?

If someone is trying to give you advice – always listen to them. Even if you think it’s not relevant – just listen. If I could have done one thing differently – I wish we started it sooner.

What advice do you have for tenants dealing with disrepair or poor housing conditions?

Raise it with your landlord.

If you feel like you’re getting fobbed off, or the repair doesn’t take place then you should speak to other residents.

It’s always good for neighbours to be in contact with each other anyway as you never know when problems could pop up, then your group is already there and you’re already looking out for each other.

Door knock, take names and numbers, create a WhatsApp group, discuss the problems, report repairs, post problems on social media, ask for a meeting with the CEO and speak to local councillors.

We were lucky as we had the support of the local Labour party, other housing groups, people on Twitter retweeting stuff. It all helps. If you can take stuff to TV or the media, try and do that.

What can you take from this story?

  • Talk to your neighbours, and stay in touch via online or in-person groups
  • Try the usual channels first, but if you don’t get things fixed, be prepared to escalate. Don’t put up with surface repairs that don’t tackle the root cause.
  • Use a public platform like Twitter to show the problem with photos.
  • See if you can get a journalist to take interest, and build up a relationship with them.
  • Connect with other housing action groups too, to share advice and experiences.
  • Ask independent experts to come and take a look.

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