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Special EHN report: in the shadow of the tower

Tom Wall01/04/2015 - 13:00

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The Shard towers over Southwark
The Shard towers over Southwark

EHN digital editor, Tom Wall, investigates the human fallout from London’s housing crisis and the efforts of courageous EHOs to rescue people from intolerable conditions.

A short bus ride from Renzo Piano’s £4bn neo-futurist gleaming shard of glass, a family of hard-working migrants live in a squalid deathtrap.

Pablo Ballarta bounces his baby son on his knee as his partner Minerva Meolina prepares a meal for their two other children in their windowless kitchen in Camberwell, Southwark, south London.

‘It is not the way I thought it was going to be. I thought London was different. I thought it was beautiful but it is not.’

Their block, which contains three other flats, was built without planning permission and has been declared a fire risk by Southwark Council.

The landlady, Jaspal Seehra, has ignored council orders to clear the building and continues to collect rent. She also owns a neighboring block of seven flats, which poses a similar fire risk. She could be earning over £8000 a month in rent from all 11 flats.

EHO Luisa Villar from Southwark Council, who has been trying to help Pablo and Minerva, says the 20-meter long corridor is not safe as only a ‘few breaths of smoke can make you pass out’.

‘The block is a fire risk firstly because it does not meet building regulations and planning requirements. Secondly because the means of escape for the two ground floor flats far exceeds the maximum safety travel distance. And thirdly because the two ground floor flats means of escape is inadequate as they have inner rooms,’ she says.

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The couple, who came from Spain four years ago in search of work, share a cramped bedroom with the baby and primary-school-age daughter. The room’s single window looks out onto a walled courtyard full of mouldy suitcases, piles of rubble and broken children’s toys.

Their teenage son sleeps in the flat’s other bedroom, which is so small at 4.15m2 that it fails to meet even the legal definition of a bedroom. The only window opens onto a dark corridor.

Minerva turns from the kitchen counter and explains, with an air of quiet desperation, that the flat is too small for the family.

‘There is no seat for homework,’ she says in broken but determined English. ‘My son does his homework in his bed. My son cannot have friends over.’

Overcrowding is increasing in the private rented sector. At the last count Southwark was dealing with 106 overcrowding cases, up from 12 in 2010. Nationally the picture is the same: levels of overcrowding in the sector have gone from 3 per cent to 5 per cent since 1995.

Pablo and Minerva’s block is mouldy and cold; wind whistles down the corridors from the open-air courtyards.

‘It is worse house I have ever lived. It is worse than in Spain and Peru,’ says Pablo.

There are also cockroaches and rats. Pablo flinches as he recalls encountering vermin running past his feet on his way to work.

‘In the morning, at 4 o’clock, I opened the door and rats came,’ he says making a scuttling sound with his tongue.

Even though Pablo has two cleaning jobs, the family cannot afford to move anywhere better. His £800 monthly pay-packet covers the £650 monthly rent but little else besides. They have lived there for two and half years.

According to local estate agents market rents in Southwark range from £1336 for the smallest flats to £5580 a month for the grandest.

Minerva says: ‘I like a big home, for my child, for my daughter. But the problem is the other home very expensive and they pay him little.’

The council ordered Ms Seehra’s husband to stop renting out rooms in the block in 2011 because it posed such a risk to the tenants. After he died the council served Ms Seehra with a new probation notice in 2013. But she has failed to evict the tenants thereby denying them the chance to be rehoused by the council.

Ms Seehra was also served with prohibition order in 2014 for renting out overcrowded accommodation.

Ms Villar says she is preparing to prosecute Ms Seehra as she has ‘ignored my numerous requests to evict the tenants and carry out works to comply with the prohibition orders.’

EHN contacted Ms Seehra but she declined to comment on the conditions in the flats or the prohibition notices. She said: ‘I don’t understand why you want to do [write about] my properties. I’m not commenting at the moment.’

Both of Ms Seehra’s blocks lack planning permission. But Southwark’s planning department cannot take action because they were built over six years ago. She is understood to be seeking a certificate of lawfulness.

This disdain for planning rules is a growing problem in the borough. Since 2009 Southwark’s planning department has conducted over 250 investigations into breaches of planning regulations by private landlords, 39 enforcement actions relating to HMO conversions and 127 other enforcement notices relating to let properties.

The neighboring block can only be accessed through a railway arch. Southwark EHO, Gavin McGee, who is a regular visitor to the flats, says a fire engine would find it difficult to get past the parked vehicles under the arch.

‘The flats were built illegally so there is a danger from fire safety but also inherent problems with overcrowding and serous issues with damp and mould. And lack of effective heating systems, ‘ he says.

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Most of the tenants are from this part of London’s sizable South American population.

‘There are maybe four or five people crowded into one or two bedroom flats. And six or seven in some of the flats,’ says Mr McGee.

Despite the state of the block, they do not want to leave. The flats may be dangerous but they are cheaper than many of the other homes in the area.

‘My problem is that the tenants have said they do not want to move there and I can’t really force them out. I’m taking legal action against the owner of the property,’ he says.

Like other Labour-controlled administrations in the capital, the council is seeking to use licensing to control rogue landlords. It is planning to license smaller houses in multiple occupation and all landlords in particular trouble spots.

Councillors are particular concerned that more families are being forced to rent out rooms in shared accommodation, which were typically occupied by single people.

Xenia Baldiviezo, Southwark EHO, has seen this trend first hand. ‘The thing that is most notable is that children are now in HMOs. So you will see a whole family including children in one home of a shared house,’ she says in the council offices in Peckham.

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She thinks the new licensing regime, which is likely to be implemented after the general election in May, will provide better intelligence and give officers more powers.

‘At the moment you only have to make us aware you have an HMO and apply for a license if it is the mandatory three stories, five people or more - but we have a lot of HMOs that are two stories or three stories with four people that doesn’t fall under mandatory licensing but have a lot of problems,’ she says.

The private rented sector is now the second largest tenure in England. Around 4.1m households rent – double the number in 1996. But just over 40 per cent of homes in the sector are substandard, with many classed as hazardous to health or non-decent. It is estimated poor housing conditions cost the NHS over £600m a year and the total cost to society may be in excess of £1.5bn.

The CIEH manifesto calls on the next government to support local licensing schemes, fund a new regeneration program and a simple national landlord registration scheme.  

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