Broken boilers, cockroaches and asbestos floors: Dispossessed tenants in Canning Town have waited eight years for change
PUBLISHED: 12:00 06 December 2019 | UPDATED: 12:12 06 December 2019
Eight years ago a private company took over 250 council homes in a Newham regeneration area. But what was meant to be a temporary measure is still ongoing. Tenants have been left in dilapidated conditions and say they feel misled. Hannah Somerville reports.
Margaret Agyapong is in the dark.
Light fittings in her living room in Hooper Road, Custom House have been out of action for days and as yet, the mother-of-three has no idea when the landlord will come to fix it.
It's not the first time Margaret has faced a long wait for repairs. Formerly homeless, the 30-year-old is paying £226.92 a week for a flat previously blighted by a six-month cockroach infestation, an 18-month boiler breakdown, and tap water running brown. Margaret is one of 263 households whose future hangs in the balance until a £3.7bn regeneration of Custom House and Canning Town gets under way.
"When I came here the council said it would be temporary, for one year. But nothing has changed," she said.
A protracted battle has been fought by Newham Council and the resident-led People's Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH) to wrest back control of properties from Mears: an outsourcing giant turned interim 'caretaker' for council homes in the area.
These homes are council-owned but since 2011 have been run by private firms, charging families commercial rents for often dilapidated council houses.
It was meant to be a "temporary" arrangement which began in 2011 but could last until 2021.
For its part, Mears has handed back 37 homes and said it "shares the frustration" of residents waiting for long-awaited works to start.
Tenants left in limbo say they are still waiting for tangible change. Here are their stories.
Margaret Agyapong, Hooper Road
Margaret was in temporary accommodation in E15 before being moved into a two-bedroom flat in Hooper Road seven years ago.
The initial contract she signed with Omega, the private firm that first took over lettings and management in Custom House, was for one year.
In 2014 Omega's joint subsidiary, Tando, picked up the lucrative contract before being bought for £40million by Mears Group in 2014.
It was not until Margaret's family moved in that she discovered she had been taken off the bidding list for social housing.
"It would have meant everything to me," she said. "I thought I could save up, buy a house and be able to feed my kids."
Margaret, a vocal member of PEACH, finished a course in criminology at London Met this year and wants to become a probation officer.
But battles about rent - more than twice the average for a Newham council home, and topped up by housing benefit - have held her back.
In addition, repairs jobs have taken months and each time. "It has been a war," she said.
For its part Mears noted that as of July 2019 works had been completed and said the only outstanding repair issue was the need to replace floorboards and vinyl "due to water damage".
Like many other tenants Margaret appealed to then-Custom House councillor Rokhsana Fiaz for help.
In December 2017 then-Cllr Fiaz proposed and passed a motion at full council to examine the contract with Mears.
At PEACH's 5th birthday celebration last year, Cllr Fiaz also promised that if appointed Mayor of Newham she would seek to end it.
She said: "It's an absolute outrage that a Labour-led council tolerates the Tando-Mears situation. I would look at ending it."
Since then, though, there has been little progress despite the options for a takeover put forward by PEACH.
Margaret said: "We're still up for the fight. I want Rokhsana to fulfil what she promised us and fight the battle for us.
"The council need to sort it out. They put us here."
Boglarka Filler, Lawrence Street
When Boglarka Filler, 38, walked into her new home in 2011, the first thing she was greeted with was an asbestos warning notice on the door.
The mother-of-two is studying for an MA in conflict resolution at the University of East London.
Within months of moving in, she said, "the cracks started to show".
Linoleum laid in the kitchen has broken and lifted, exposing an asbestos floor, and the corridor ceiling has begun to fall in due to a bathroom leak.
A blocked pipe has rendered the boiler unusable in the run-up to winter, leaving the family with no heating.
These issues and more, Boglarka said, have been reported to Mears. "Even when you chase them", she said, "things are only half-fixed. This building was completed in 1968. It's not old. It's being systematically ruined in order to be sold off. It also gives an incentive for people to move out."
When asked about Boglarka's home Mears acknowledged it had "fallen into disrepair" and said it had offered her an alternative and compensation.
Boglarka's rent was reduced to £973 a month in October 2019.
After Newham Council negotiated with Mears, around half the tenants who were being charged above Local Housing Allowance had their rent reduced by £40-44 a week.
In 2017 Boglarka was threatened with eviction after falling into debt because of a five-month delay on a housing benefit payment.
She used her student loan to pay it off.
"One problem after another emerges," she said. "We can't get on with our lives. PEACH and [offshoot campaign] Mears Cats give me strength."
In February 2018, a demolition notice was published online for several streets in the Custom House and Canning Town regeneration area.
According to the notice, the long-planned demolition of Mears properties - on the cards since 2003 - might not go ahead until 2025.
Boglarka said: "This contract is a disgrace to Newham Council and nothing is being done to hold the landlord accountable.
"The area is turning into a slum. It's one of the most deprived streets in Newham and this has been a systematic neglect of people.
"The planning application is a fairytale. What about us? What about right now?"
Sylvester Achiwu, Normandy Terrace
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Father-of-three Sylvester Achiwu, 57, works six days a week to make rent as a traffic warden for Newham Council.
With no housing benefit and his wife studying nursing at UEL, the family use her student loan to eat and clothe the children: a 12-year-old and 10-year-old twins.
In August this year Sylvester was rushed to Newham General Hospital with high blood pressure, which he attributed to the stress of being a Mears tenant in Custom House.
The sitting room is infested with rats, and a blocked pipe leads to floods every time anyone in their block runs a tap or uses the dishwasher.
Mears said it has been back three times since October to fix a shower leak and issues with mixer taps, and has instructed a sub-contractor to fix a blockage.
"I'm exhausted," said Sylvester. "Since 2015 when we moved in, I've been saying the house wasn't fit for habitation. The previous tenant had left it in a bad state of repair and the council knew this. When we call Mears, nothing happens."
The family were made homeless after a private landlord in Newham took back possession of their rented flat.
After five months in temporary accommodation in Walthamstow, they were placed in a Mears-managed flat behind the Freemasons Road shops.
"This is supposed to be a council house and the council put us here," said Sylvester, whose rent is £1,167 per month.
"I should be angry. But angry at who? At what? Sometimes I'm angry at myself. I do my best, I pay tax to the government and I do all I'm supposed to do.
"Rokhsana knew what we were going through and was utterly behind us. So what's going on? Why can't she help us when she promised she would?
"Is Mears bigger than the council?"
Samantha Napa, Hooper Road
In August 2018 Samantha Napa stood in front of Mears Group HQ in Enfield with a delegation from resident campaign group Mears Cats.
Dressed in a raincoat and brandishing a megaphone, she admonished the landlord for treating tenants "like animals" and led the chant: "No more Mears, no more tears".
Now, 18 months on, the 30-year-old has one refrain left: "I'm so over it".
Samantha moved into Hooper Road from a hostel in July 2011 and was then also taken off the council house bidding list - something she only learned after an administrative error led her to "win" a property in West Ham.
"The council discharged its duty of care," she said. "That was a historic wrong.
"Initially I was just happy to get out of the hostel. I was so excited I didn't think about anything else. As time went by I started falling into debt."
Despite working in finance Samantha is barely able to cover the sky-high rent and fell into more than £6,000 of arrears as a single mother on maternity pay.
She took out a £5,000 loan to cover arrears and on top of her rent is now paying back an extra £248 a month, leaving the family scraping by.
She said: "This is my life and my livelihood. I thought we'd be here for five years maximum, and it has been eight. My anxiety is on 100; I'm always panicking, always thinking about the letters I'm going to get through the door.
"We keep going through this. I'm tired and I'm frustrated. I feel Rokhsana knew the outcome and could have told us from the beginning."
There is no timeline for the regeneration of Custom House and Canning Town, and the 2025 demolition "deadline" for parts of the area could be extended.
In January this year Newham agreed a £2.2m contract with Adam Khan Architects to draw up designs for Custom House, and in May agreed to spend £4.5m on a Canning Town East masterplan.
PEACH and Newham Council have also been negotiating a possible takeover of some Mears properties.
Some 37 homes have come back under council control since 2018 and Mears has not been issued any new leases since May 2018.
PEACH has proposed 30 homes be taken over on a trial basis by community housing providers.
Community organiser Hero Austin said: "The idea is that these providers will charge 40 per cent less rent and will treat people with respect.
"While this valuable pilot scheme may well go ahead, the original aim was to make these community providers part of the solution for current Mears tenants, and that aim is yet to be fulfilled.
"Tenants have been very, very patient with this administration. They have held onto a lot of hope."
For its part, the council said it had made "significant progress" addressing concerns and held regular meetings with both Mears and tenants, as well as monitoring Mears and taking part in joint property inspections.
In January 2019 it carried out an extensive survey of 156 Mears properties including a follow-up on all complaints.
The options proposed by PEACH, a council spokeswoman said, had been "thoroughly explored with regards to viability and legal ramifications".
Cllr John Gray, cabinet member for housing, said: "The Mayor and I find the Mears management of our properties intolerable.
"Like many residents, I'm also frustrated that it has taken a while but it is vital that alternative solutions hold up to public and legal scrutiny.
"We're on course to lease some empty properties to a community land trust or Community-led housing provider and are in active talks with potential partners.
"We've stopped any further properties being managed by Mears and all complaints directly raised with us by PEACH have been investigated. Where we've demanded action, Mears have acted."
He added it was "disappointing" some members of PEACH felt there had been no progress and they were in active discussions with the group.
The Mears Group is a UK-wide outsourcing company that made a profit of £24m last year, including hundreds of thousands for temporary accommodation in Newham.
It manages 9,500 properties in the UK and recently won a £1.15 billion Home Office contract to provide asylum housing.
The value of the Canning Town and Custom House contract is not known, but the company is likely to be collecting around £3million a year in rent from ex-homeless families, levels of which were agreed with Newham.
Ms Austin said: "This was meant to be a stopgap solution. No-one thought it was going to be a 10-year problem with a rolling contract."
A Mears spokesman said: "We share the frustration of residents about the delay in regeneration.
"Whilst Mears is responsible for the day to day repairs of the buildings the fabric of the estate is in need of serious attention and capital investment from the council.
"We regularly visit properties to look at what repairs might be needed and once a repair is raised with us we respond swiftly to sort out the problem."
They added that Mears had arranged a free pest control service for tenants. This took place in October 2019 after discussions with Newham.
The spokesman said: "We are sorry to hear about the specific complaints and we acknowledge there have been ongoing issues with cockroaches and rodents within the estate. It is unfortunate we have had to put these measures in place."