Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2847

Tower Hamlets flat fire shows how poorest people die

The true cost of Britain’s unregulated and profit-led housing market was exposed after a blaze killed a man in a tiny flat where 18 people were crammed. Isabel Ringrose talked to the survivors
Issue 2847
housing survivors

Some of the survivors of the fire are speaking out

Overcrowded housing, greedy landlords and a council that didn’t care killed Mizanur Rahman.  A criminal investigation has been launched after Rahman died in a blaze in a two ­bedroom apartment that 18 people were forced to share.  The blaze, caused by a Zoomo e-bike battery, engulfed the apartment at Maddocks House on the Tarling West estate in Shadwell, east London, on 5 March. 

The fire was the deadly consequence of a housing market where predatory landlords prey on the poorest and most vulnerable, and councils who mostly stand on the side of the bosses. Students, delivery drivers, restaurant and warehouse workers occupied the flat made up of two bedrooms, a toilet, bathroom and kitchen—where residents were also forced to sleep.

Five survivors, who are all from Bangladesh, explained to Socialist Worker that everyone knew about the flat, from local residents and ­shopkeepers to councillors, but nothing was done. Nazmush is a student and works in a sushi restaurant. He lived in the flat for around six months and moved in after hearing about it when his accommodation fell through.

“It was way too crowded and cramped. It was dirty, and there were bed bugs,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep for two or three days straight when I first moved in.“We planned to call the council after we found proper accommodation. But after the fire, we found out the council already knew. That was shocking.

“I have seen places like this, but this was really bad. Some places use ­bunkbeds in double rooms, so there’s more space. Here it was bunk beds to fit more people in.”

The residents said the landlord told them if they complained to the police or council they wouldn’t be allowed to stay in London.“Every day we were looking for proper accommodation,” Nazmush added. “We searched in leaflets, advertising boards, or on Gumtree or Spareroom. But ­everything is too expensive.”

Roni, another survivor, is only ­visiting London for six months. He said all he wanted was somewhere self-catered to stay. Ehsan is also a student who has lived in London, and the flat, for six months. He was recommended the flat by a friend. “I didn’t like having lots of people surrounding me—there were too many people. I got used to it. The people were nice. But the flat was the worst—and it was too mouldy and old.”

Nazmul, another student, moved six months ago to the flat in Maddocks House. “When I came here I was shocked,” he said. He applied for asylum in December after issues in his home country but still awaits a decision.

The flat is leased by a private ­landlord from Tower Hamlets Homes that manages communal spaces in the building.  Tower Hamlets council said it acted upon complaints about ­overcrowding—but survivors say that’s not true. Local residents complained as early as November 2021.

The landlord, who has lived in the area for at least 20 years, denied to the BBC any responsibility for alleged overcrowding and said the claims were false. He said he was renting to three people and was unaware 18 people were living in the flat.

The residents also disputed this and said the landlord was aware that so many people lived in the apartment. They explained how they weren’t allowed to cook and would carry food from the landlord’s flat to theirs. Ehsan explained, “We were living with more than 18 people—if we wanted to cook separately, it’d use too much electricity and gas.”

Nazmush added, “He would cook the food at his flat, or sometimes we’d cook in his flat. That was part of our ­agreement—he advertised that he’d get us food. And he’d come in when people were asleep when he liked, even at 10.30-11 pm.”

Nazmul said, “There was no ventilation or anywhere for the steam to go. It would smell up the flat all the time.” The flat only had one toilet and bathroom. “Everything was leaking,” Nazmush said. “The landlord also took the fuse out of the washing machine.

“The microwave would spark and he cut the plug from the fan above the cooker. We also knew when they were coming, we’d have to turn the heating off. We didn’t keep the house warm.”

If the landlord came in and the ­heating was on, he’d shout at the residents and demand to know who switched it on. But, Ehsan said, “Even if we’d turn it off before he arrived, he’d touch the heating and ask why it was hot. This was all going on all the time.”

‘There’s a whole system that failed these people’

The residents had just minutes to escape the fire. “We lost everything, passports, documents, personal items—everything,” Nazmul said. “We had no shoes or clothes so local people gave us sandals and blankets.”At first the residents were escorted to the Overground station and told by local authority representatives that they couldn’t do anything.

After being taken to a local mosque, they were then told by the council they could stay in a hotel. But that would only be for one night, after which they’d have to find and pay for their own accommodation. The next day they were told they could stay for another night and were given some money. Over two weeks on, they are still living in the hotel. 

“We have food and hygiene issues,” Nazmul said. “None of the food is halal and the staff shout at us. Our key cards stop working and they tell us off.”

Following the fire the survivors received no medical attention for any physical or psychological needs. “We have nightmares,” Nazmul said.

Nazmush added, “We’re still doing our day to day work, but we’re mentally exhausted. Now I’m trying to do my assignments from my phone. Even before the fire we didn’t have a proper place to study. I’m getting to breaking point. 

“This was meant to be something temporary, but none of us was getting anywhere. Rent has skyrocketed.” Hussain Ismail from the Maddocks House Support Group said, “There’s a whole system that corroborated and failed these people.

“We’re lucky that 18 people didn’t die. It’s pure negligence—the way they’re being treated now is too atrocious.”

Tower Hamlets’ new mayor Lutfur Rahman said the council would take back control of more than 20,000 homes that are currently under Tower Hamlets Homes. But the overcrowded and cramped conditions aren’t unique to Maddocks House.

Some 9.2 percent of London homes were overcrowded in 2019-20 compared with 8.2 percent the year before. Around 16.7 of socially rented homes are overcrowded, and 15.1 in the privately rented sector. 

And that’s before the impact of the pandemic and skyrocketing rents. In 2021 the highest percent of overcrowding in London was in the borough of Newham at 25 percent.  Neighbouring Tower Hamlets was 22.68 percent, and Brent in west London at 22.57 percent.


One of the rooms where people were crammed

And the problem extends across Britain, where racism, exploitation and poverty go hand in hand. According to government data, 700,000 homes are overcrowded, meaning they have fewer rooms than are needed. 

Of that number, 24 percent are home to people of Bangladeshi descent, and 18 percent are of Pakistani descent.  The mayor of London’s office says the solution is more socially rented homes or London Affordable Rents—which are often unaffordable.

But social rents have gone up by 7 percent this year alone, and the ongoing development for new and private blocks has shattered affordable land and rent prices. The solution is fewer homes for profit, lower rents and a mass programme of council housing for people to live safely. 

And we also need a crackdown on negligent landlords and councils.

Landlord knew the flat he made £10,000 a month from was unsafe

On top of the daily visits with food, the landlord’s wife—who is the leaseholder on the flat—would come every night for money. “Everyone had a different pay day,” Ehsan explained. Nazmush added, “She had a notebook, and people would owe different rents on different days. She was the business manager, and he was the muscle.”

The landlord would also make up how much rent everyone owed. “Some paid £80, others £90 and some £100,” Zubayer, another resident, said. He is a student who works at Mcdonald’s and lived in the flat for three months. “The conditions were very bad in the flat, but the people were nice,” he said.

“If you wanted to register with the GP or open a bank account you’d have to use the landlord’s address and he’d charge £350. For a year he’d say it was £1,000. It was whatever he made up. But this flat was an open secret in London.”

Some of the longer-term residents paid a deposit of £150, some £400 and others nothing at all. Ehsan explained, “We used to pay per week but if someone left after a week he’d lose a customer. So he switched to paying for the month.”

Nazmul said, “When more people would come in he’d raise the prices. If people moved, he’d rent it again to another person—so he’d get the whole month’s rent twice. And if you leave London for three or four nights, he’d rent the bed again even if you’re already paying for it.”

Nazmush said that one of his roommates used to leave London for periods of time to visit his wife. “He didn’t know his bed had been rented out while he was gone, so when he came back one night, he started to cry because he didn’t know where he was going to sleep.

“The landlord didn’t answer his phone—my friend slept on the floor.”

Zubayer said he slept on the kitchen floor for three nights—and this was common for others in the flat too. Overall the residents estimate the couple made £10,000-£12,000 a month in rent alone. The horrific story exposes much broader problems of exploitation and racism. 

Many of those living in Maddocks House were migrant workers and students locked into the gig economy. And their story is not unique.  Poor pay, insecure work, and skyrocketing rents mean that thousands of workers have no choice but to live in such desperate conditions. These workers are truly at the mercy of anyone who wants to exploit them. 

While workers like those living in Maddocks house keep London running, they are trapped in a cycle of poverty where there is virtually no escape. 

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