‘I’ve Seen Sewage Running Down Walls’: Exposing the UK’s Social Housing Crisis

Kwajo Tweneboa, 23, has gone viral exposing London's cockroach-infested social housing. He speaks to VICE World News about his activism.

Kwajo Tweneboa, 23, stands outside a flat on a housing association block in south London and uses his body weight to push open the swollen door. It barely moves – it could easily trap you.

He goes into a child's room, where hundreds of cockroaches swarm across the carpet, running under the bed and across children’s toys. Exterminators have come to the property but they’ve said the infestation is so bad they can’t do anything in this room. There’s a leak above the washing machine right next to an electricity socket, and black mould spreads across the wall. The pest traps are thick with dead cockroaches. “Look at that,” he says, shocked. “Look at that.

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Tweneboa’s video of one anonymous family’s home – viewed over 500,000 times – highlighted the horrendous conditions many social housing tenants are forced to live in. The amount of social housing available in England has not changed in over a decade, failing to meet demand caused by rising rents and increasing poverty. Although privately rented homes are statistically worse according to the English Housing Survey, 13 percent of all social housing properties are in poor condition – equivalent to around 520,000 households. 

Tweneboa’s motivation to fight for housing tenants comes from growing up in a similar kind of poverty, and he lobbies MPs, councillors and housing associations to help vulnerable tenants. He fits it around studying Business at De Montfort University in Leicester, where he commutes twice a week from Mitcham, south east London. We spoke to him about his campaign. 

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VICE World News: Hi Kwajo. How did you first become interested in campaigning for the rights of tenants?
Kwajo Tweneboa:
My activism started with my own experience. I was living in disrepair. I had gone through temporary accommodation from the age of 17. When I moved into my current home in Mitcham, that's when my dad became ill. We had mould, mice, cockroaches, asbestos, our ceiling was missing at one point, and they wouldn't put it back up, our windows were broken. My furniture and everything got absolutely destroyed from mould and damp. It meant I didn't have kitchen facilities or bathroom facilities so I was buying takeaways and showering at the gym. The housing association wouldn't come and fix it, they would just ignore us and didn't see us as a priority. Then my dad passed from oesophageal cancer in January 2020 surrounded by this. And that's when things went from bad to worse. 

What happened?
A leak happened and the ceiling partially collapsed. We thought it was going to be an emergency and the housing association would come out and fix it. They didn't come out until October of that year.

It got to a point where I was chasing them and chasing them. One day they hung the phone up on me and I said I had had enough. My mental health was all over the place. I took it to social media and took pictures of my house online. People didn't realise others were living in these sorts of conditions. I went around the whole estate of 450-something homes and posted a letter in every single door, asking them to contact me saying I’m trying to raise awareness of it and get issues fixed. Almost instantly, before I had even handed out the letters on the estate, I was getting pictures, phone calls and messages from people saying this is how they're living.

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I've been visiting them ever since, talking to them ever since, and going to their homes filming. Now, for them, I've built a platform, where I highlight problems and things get moving within the house. 

You work on your own while studying and travelling to the Midlands twice a week – what motivates you?
It's hard. My dad's story, my story and my family's story is part of the reason, but the pure fact is that I know the difference between right and wrong. At the end of the day, these housing associations and the government are wrong. I committed myself. Not only am I going to make sure people remember my dad through my work, but I'm going to highlight this issue and make sure change comes for tenants across the country. 

I was going to make sure the right people listened. I will do absolutely anything and take on absolutely anyone that I need to in order to make sure that message is heard and tenants are listened to. These are decades-old problems. In some cases, these issues have been around longer than I've been alive. 

What do you think needs to be fixed in the housing sector?
With the increase in the cost of living and increase in bills and sky-high rental prices, people from all different sorts of occupations and classes are now being forced to depend on social housing, which is already over-subscribed. If this continues, social housing supply will never ever meet demand.

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What kind of issues do you see?
From sewage running down people's walls to mould to damp to asbestos, to broken windows, broken back doors, to cockroaches to mice to rats. People in their 80s who had been forced to bathe in the sink in their downstairs bathroom. It just goes

on: people with disabilities living in these conditions, people with mental health problems, people who are terminally ill. You name it. 

The fact that tenants all feel they're being ignored. They don't have a voice. 

What successes have you had?

I've had people moved out of the unfit homes they’ve been in for years. I've had repairs being carried out in homes across my estate. I think there were 700 repairs, something like 20 bathrooms and 20 kitchens fitted in homes. Last week within 24 hours of the cockroach video being online, I had that housing association promised to permanently rehouse that family.

What do you want to do next?
I want to build upon this platform that I have and build something for tenants to go to. I want to create a website and a space that tenants can trust, with advice that will genuinely benefit them. My ultimate goal is to have an impact at the top for the people at the bottom whilst also using my business skills to help tenants.

I said to myself, the voices of tenants and the working class will be listened to now because for so long, they've been ignored. They do matter because they are human beings. If the CEOs that work for these organisations and the government wouldn't live in these sorts of conditions then why do they think it's acceptable for the most vulnerable in our country to live like that? 

Tagged:

London, HOUSING CRISIS, Social Housing, worldnews, Kwajo Tewenboa

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