Socialist Worker

Driving out the homeless

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2650

People are forced to live in Prospect House in Brent

People are forced to live in Prospect House in Brent (Pic: Socialist Worker)


People in desperate housing need are being forced to live in an old office block next to the North Circular road, a six lane motorway that loops through north London.

Labour-run Brent council in west London has put them in Prospect House. Residents described worries of unsafe windows, rats in the back yard, pollution, and a broken front door meaning anyone can get inside.

It’s part of a growing trend to push people in desperate housing need into totally unsuitable accommodation and then declare the crisis is solved.

It may be happening to people in your area, and if not it could be soon.

Kemi lives with her five year-old son in Prospect House.

When she moved in two years ago, she was told it would only be temporary accommodation. “This place is a disaster,” she told Socialist Worker.

“It’s just horrible here and it’s ­getting worse and worse.

“There are loads of rats in the back where my son is trying to play and the toilet is always backfiring.”

She added, “I don’t know where to go and I’m scared to ask the council for help, because they’ll say that I’ve already got a place.

“Once the council has placed you somewhere, they’ve discharged their duty.”

Dwayne, another resident, added, “I’ve lived here for two years, but it was supposed to be temporary—six weeks.

Kemi shows a dangerous partition in her studio flat

Kemi shows a dangerous partition in her studio flat (Pic: Socialist Worker)


“There are lots of rats outside, it’s not a lot of fun living here.”

Fadya Mohamed lives in Prospect House with her three children, Jassim aged two, Jannah aged six, and Jemimah aged nine. “I took the flat because the council gave me no choice,” she told Socialist Worker.

“The council said, ‘Take it or you’ll be off our lists and then you’ll have to find your own home.”

Prior to moving into Prospect House, Fadya and her children lived for ten weeks in temporary accommodation in Northfields in the ­neighbouring borough of Ealing. She had been evicted by her private landlord after eight years.

Fadya said, “The council tried to get me to sign all the documents without seeing the property.

“When I went into the office in Chiswick, I was seen by someone from another department and they said I’d already seen it. I thought, ‘You are taking me for a mug.’ I had an email saying I could see it.

“But Brent council said I had to take it without seeing it—or I’d be off their lists.”

Brent isn’t the only council that is housing people in these sorts of conditions.

Councils in east London have moved people to an old office block in Harlow, Essex, which Socialist Worker revealed last November.

Even the local Tory MP said the government’s policy had “allowed landlords to build ghettos and allowed London councillors to socially cleanse their most vulnerable families to places like Harlow.”

Now it’s going to get worse.

People are placed into situations such as Prospect House because politicians, landlords and rich treat them with contempt.

The Homelessness Act came into force one year ago this month.

It set local authorities targets for reducing homelessness in their areas.

Labour-run Southwark council in south London sees it as “potentially the greatest piece of homelessness legislation for 40 years in England”.

Last year in Southwark there was an 8.6 percent increase in families put into temporary accommodation and a small increase in rough ­sleepers.

And there was also a 50 ­percent increase in the number of people a risk of homelessness but who were actually kept in their homes.

The fact that this increase in ­homelessness was lower than the average across the rest of London meant the council’s executive member for housing, Stephanie Cryan, could claim “the act works”.

He argued that his council’s implementation of the new law was the proof.

In reality, Southwark shows that the Act is only a sticking plaster for the homelessness crisis. Despite this, the borough is held up as an example and councillors travel from around the country to marvel at it.

Residents

Housing minister Heather Wheeler said last year she would resign if the homelessness crisis were to get worse. It has, yet she remains.

While the Act places “duties” on councils to help British residents who are homeless or at risk of ­homelessness, the Tories only made £73 million available to councils over the three years to 2020. It’s meant that two thirds of councils have said they don’t have enough money to enforce the Act.

And scandals such as Prospect House and similar office block housing are the result.

The Act doesn’t deal with what’s driving the rise in homelessness—the roll out of universal credit, the ­benefit cap, lack of council house building, soaring rents and house prices and rising levels of poverty.

Kemi’s flat has a makeshift wooden divider that hangs from the ceiling. “The wall is always wobbling,” she said. “My son is five years old and very active. I worry that one day I’ll hear ‘boo-boom’, and he will be gone.”

Fadya has similar fears for Jassim, and her other children, because of unsafe windows.

The windows of her second floor flat open up onto the front yard, right next to a busy slip road onto the North Circular.

“It’s always really hot in the flat—and we haven’t even been through summer yet—but you can never leave the window open,” she explained.

Fadya has to leave it on the safety latch all the time “because it’s just not set up like a house”.

“When I moved in, I noticed some of the neighbours had put in wooden bars into their windows for their children,” she said.

“I asked where did they get it done—and it’s all just DIY people have had to do.”

The North Circular road is a major worry for families in Prospect House. A study in 2013 showed that it was the most polluted road in Britain.

The European target is a maximum of 40 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre we breath—the area around Prospect House averages over 97 micrograms.

Fadya said, “There is constant noise and pollution.

“Even though I can only keep the window on the latch, I have to hoover every day because of the dust.”

Prospect House is another symbol of a housing crisis that pushes many ordinary people into increasingly desperate conditions while the rich turn swathes of cities into their playgrounds.

She sent a review of the property to the council after the first two weeks, raising concerns about its inappropriate location.

Yet Brent dismissed her fears about living on the edge of the North Circular.

A letter from the council said, “With regard to pollution, London is one of the most polluted cities not only in the UK but within Europe.

“Generally the further you go away from London the standard of air ­quality improves.”

It went on, “I accept that ‘the property’ is located close to the busy North Circular Road which is one of the main transport arteries across London from east to west.

Councillors hyped the opening of Prospect House

Councillors hyped the opening of Prospect House


“However, I understand that ‘the property’, whilst nearby is not actually on the North Circular Road but is accessed by a smaller road which runs parallel.”

Fadya said, “The road is my biggest worry. I drive, but if I had to walk with the little ones by it every day it would be different.

“And there are plenty of families who don’t drive here.”

Kemi said, “Whenever my son is riding his bike by the flat, I’m always screaming, ‘Don’t go there’.”

Her boyfriend added, “He has his bike and his scooter, but there’s nowhere to go for him to play nearby.”

Fadya said the letter is representative of how the council and Shepherd’s Bush Housing Association treats residents’ concerns. “My neighbour’s son has epilepsy,” she said. “He had a fit because of the heat and was taken to hospital.

“They said, ‘Go to Argos and get a fan.’.”

In December 2016 Brent council “celebrated” National Empty Homes week by opening Prospect House.

Brent council leader, Muhammed Butt, hailed it as a “brilliant example of working in partnership with a ­landlord and a housing association”.

“It has provided accommodation which is providing a decent future for families and young people and we want to do more work like this,” he said.

Collaboration

Property developer Ashok Kumar Vohra, director of Sonal Trading, received money under the council’s Empty Property Grant to redevelop the property in 2015. The company is now the landlord.

The collaboration hasn’t turned out to be a “brilliant example” for the residents.

Fadya said, “We’re not supposed to know the landlord, but his car is always downstairs and he’s around.”

She said a big problem was how gas bills are divided up by the “stingy landlord”.

“There’s only one boiler for the property,” said Fadya. “The bill is shared by the size of the property, whether it’s a studio, a 1 bed or a 2 bed.

“The gas is £69 a month, which is extraordinarily expensive with the other bills, but we don’t get to see how it’s shared.

“We just get an envelope with our flat number on it every month and inside are bank details.”

That’s on top of the £317 a week Fadya has to pay for living in the cramped conditions.

Prospect House is another symbol of a housing crisis that pushes many ordinary people into increasingly desperate conditions while the rich turn swathes of cities into their playgrounds.

Working class people should have decent homes—spaces where they can live in dignity, in areas where their children can play in safety.

But they are placed into situations such as Prospect House because politicians, landlords and rich treat them with contempt.

Fadya said, “There is money—but it’s about where it’s shared out.”


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