Marilyn Boyle has been waiting 20 years for a transfer from her house. It’s been slowly subsiding into the garages underneath and, 17 years ago, when she was eight and a half months pregnant, Marilyn fell through the rotting kitchen floor.
That wasn’t enough to get her moved. Today many of her possessions are in boxes, ready for a move, ready for a new start in reasonable conditions. But the wait goes on.
Marilyn is nervous that by speaking out she may damage her case, may bring down the wrath of the housing department and the nameless officials whose decisions have affected her so dramatically.
It’s a courageous move to let us into her home.
Marilyn lives in Hyperion House in Bow, Tower Hamlets, in east London. The home she shares with her husband Wally and her teenage son is riddled with woodworm and dripping with damp.
The wallpaper is stripped off most of the walls to combat the damp. In the bathroom the walls are black with mould. Marilyn has a heart condition and Wally has emphysema, a chronic disease that causes changes in the lungs that make it harder and harder for a person to breathe.
There could hardly be a worse place for him to live.
Marilyn once worked in the local biscuit factory, married at 16 and has brought up five children. It’s difficult to imagine someone more deserving of consideration and decent treatment or someone who has waited more patiently for her rights.
But she has found only bureaucratic indifference and official rejection.
A few hundred metres away from Marilyn and Wally, lives Shamsul Alam Harun with his wife and three children – aged seven, five and two. They too are waiting. They’ve been waiting ten years for rehousing.
The damp stains their walls as well. They fight to keep the place decent, repainting all the walls every three months and cleaning scrupulously every day. But they’re battling against great odds.
Slowly some rooms have become uninhabitable for the children, who now crowd into their parents’ bedroom. Seven year old Rezwan Alam Dinar has severe eczema. When he wakes, there is blood on his pillow, says mum Nadira Begum Runi and the eczema scars his skin. In the bathroom cabinet are dozens of skin creams and tablets. Then there is a bagful of other medicines in the bedroom.
Shamsul is a cook, a low paid worker. He has no chance of buying a house in Tower Hamlets where the average house price is £265,000.
Not far away live Luis Gomez and his wife Sandra and their seven year old daughter Sarah. They’re on the 18th floor of Mallard Point.
Luis came to Britain 12 years ago as a political refugee from Colombia. Both his brothers had been shot dead and Luis himself bears the scars of bullet wounds in his leg and his side.
He finds it hard to walk, suffering constant pain in his leg. It would be hard if he lived in a ground floor flat, but on the 18th floor he is imprisoned if the lift stops working. And it breaks down nearly every day.
Sometimes Luis attempts the stairs, but he must rest at every landing, battling against the pain and the discomfort.
Usually he is stuck where he is. He misses doctor’s appointments and other important meetings because the lift doesn’t work.
He feels depressed, especially when the cold bites. The old window frames don’t keep out the cold. There’s no central heating and the pain gets worse in the bad weather. In Sarah’s bedroom most of the wallpaper has been stripped away because of damp.
Luis’s family rent their home from a private landlord. They pay £285 a week.
These three families are all from very different backgrounds, but they are now all now caught in Tower Hamlets’ housing crisis. There are 23,000 households on the waiting list, many facing overcrowding and chronic damp.
In other parts of Britain you can also find desperate housing conditions, but nowhere will you find wealth and poverty so close together. From the windows of their rotting homes they can glimpse the soaring towers of Canary Wharf, monuments to the power of the global elite.
Once the Labour Party claimed to stand for the people in the overcrowded, damp-ridden houses against the powerful in the corporate towers. But not now.
In Tower Hamlets there is no longer allocation of housing based on need. Instead people are invited to “bid” for vacant properties. Those who get the most points are successful, but it is a process which favours those who know how the system works.
Now Labour offers only privatisation and support for the luxury building developers. The massive programme of council house building and home improvements which Tower Hamlets and other areas so desperately need is simply not on its neo-liberal agenda.
That’s one reason why a great battle is being fought in east London between Labour and Respect. On Thursday of next week Respect can shatter Labour’s cosy belief that the poor have nobody else to vote for.
Wherever Respect is standing, activists must make every effort to win as many votes as possible on 4 May.
Remember Marilyn, Shamsul, Luis and their families – and thousands more like them – when you campaign and vote next week.
Pauline lives with her husband and four young children in a two bedroom council flat. All four children sleep in the same small bedroom, with the 11 year old daughter sharing with her three younger brothers.
The flat is very damp and in urgent need of repairs, but the council hasn’t done them.
Pauline suffers with acute asthma as a result of her living conditions and the children find it very difficult to do their homework because the flat is so cramped.
Mohammed, his wife and three children (aged ten, seven and three) have been living in “temporary” accommodation since July 2001.
Both the younger children have a genetic muscular disability and use wheelchairs. Their home doesn’t have any adaptations.
The council has advised the family to “bid” regularly for available housing, but there aren’t many homes that will meet their needs.
There is also a plan to demolish the block they live in, but the family hasn’t been told anything about where or when they will be rehoused.
Mr Miah’s family live in a two bedroom council flat. He and his wife share one bedroom, the other is occupied by their four children – boys aged 13, 18 and 22 and a daughter aged 24.
The family suffers health problems aggravated by their overcrowding and the situation places severe strain on them, particularly as some of the children are studying.
They have been on the waiting list for rehousing for 16 years, but have yet to receive a single offer.
On one recent occasion they “bid” for a property, but came 184th on the list.
Sue was pregnant when her relationship broke down. Her partner hit her and they weren’t able to pay the mortgage, so the house was repossessed.
She moved in with her brother, but the home was overcrowded and this caused tension.
In desperation Sue went to the council’s homeless services department.
They said that she had made herself deliberately homeless, but found her a “temporary” home – a two bedroom ex-council flat on the sixth floor where the rent is £318 a week.
She’s been living there for over three years.
Before the last election a Labour councillor came and met her and offered sympathy and help. But she has yet to have an offer of permanent affordable housing.