Sunday May 7, 2023
By Andrew Kersley
Somali families claim Tower Hamlets has left them in unsafe conditions, and accuse council of racism and corruption
Somali families who allege they were mistreated by Tower Hamlets housing and council, outside Tower Hamlets town hall in Whitechapel, London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
Dozens of families who have been waiting for social housing for several years, sometimes even decades, are set to take legal action against a London council, accusing it of corruption and racism.
The families, all of whom are Somali, claim they have been systemically removed
from housing waiting lists by Tower Hamlets council due to their race, and some have been placed in severely unfit and unsafe homes that doctors say posed a major risk to their health.
Some of the allegations heard by the Observer include claims of the council refusing to give safe housing to a child with a life-threatening heart defect, and forcibly moving one mother to an overcrowded home close to where she experienced childhood abuse, refusing to rehouse her and threatening her with social services when she complained.
Most of the families taking legal action have been on the housing waiting list for several years, with some waiting more than a decade – far longer than the periods the council claimed are normal.
Domestic violence victims, single parents of those with Down’s syndrome in unsafe flats or homeless single mothers, who should all have the highest priority and be housed within months, say they have waited several years or been removed from waiting lists altogether.
In the meantime, they claim, they have been left living in severely unsafe conditions, in homes where as many as seven people share one room and which are riddled with damp and mould so bad it had left some with severe health conditions.
Many claim they were arbitrarily removed from the waiting list by the council, seemingly in an effort to artificially reduce demand on council services, in a manner that the families allege constituted racist targeting.
A Tower Hamlets council spokesperson said they took “allegations of this nature seriously” and are “actively working with these families” to investigate.
The spokesperson added that they had “yet to receive full details and evidence for the vast majority of these complaints” and that they “strongly encouraged” the other families to send in formal complaints.
The stories heard by the Observer included those of families who were moved outside the borough (which removed their right to local housing), those being offered no homes for years despite nominally being high priority and those with poor English skills being called by council officers to confirm their removal from housing lists and then being confused into agreeing by council officials. The Observer also heard multiple claims of families being asked to pay money to move up the waiting list either by council officials or strangers who identified themselves as housing officers or being linked to the council.
In one case a mother, who asked to remain anonymous, alleged that she was followed out of a meeting at Tower Hamlets council’s housing service by a man who identified himself as Ahmed and said he would get her housing if she paid him a fee. He then sent invoices and messages, seen by the Observer, asking for payment.
The paper could not confirm if any of the individuals who identified themselves as council officials were actually linked to the council.
Some of the families taking legal action claimed the council had failed to acknowledge the serious medical need of families, something that would force the council to house them far more quickly.
The Observer has seen dozens of letters sent to the council by doctors saying the families needed urgent transfers that were either ignored or actively overruled by council officials.
In one case, a family of six with a three-year-old child who has had to have multiple open heart surgeries to help address a severe heart defect was left living in a cramped two bedroom flat.
In multiple letters, doctors at Great Ormond Street hospital repeatedly stressed that it was “extremely important” that the family was urgently moved before the house badly worsened the son’s condition, only to be told in response that they would not be given higher priority.
The council’s spokesperson did not comment on the individual cases put to them by the Observer or respond specifically to the wider claims made by the campaign group.
Maryam* said she has been on the housing waiting list for 15 years and claimed she had been arbitrarily removed multiple times. She said that she and her four children have spent the last four years in temporary accommodation riddled with damp and mould, despite being a priority 1A applicant – the highest category.
“My children have asthma pumps. My GP gave me a letter saying: ‘You need to remove this lady and her children from this home,’” she told the Observer. “But they’re treating us like we’re animals. As if we don’t belong in this country.”
Late last year Arisha, a past victim of domestic violence and childhood abuse, was moved by the council to a two-bedroom house in Sidcup that she has to share with her five children.
Not only did the move out of the borough remove her from the waiting list for social housing, but the new house was just a few minutes away from the home she was abused in as a child.
Arisha claims that the house is so poorly built she has to spend £200 a month on heating bills alone, leaving her having to go to a food bank to feed her family. “It’s not really a home,” she said. “It’s like torture, just reliving everything in a lot of pain.”
When she explained to the council why she couldn’t take the new property, she was allegedly told she would make herself “intentionally homeless” and so would lose all access to council support. She claimed that when she asked for help she was threatened with police and social services if she continued to cause problems.
A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council added: “Housing is a top priority and we work to provide as many homes as possible, but there are thousands more people on our housing register than homes available.
“Competing demands for housing have to be considered and difficult decisions made about how we offer the limited number of homes available each year.
“Our allocations scheme outlines the process for granting priority for housing. It makes clear how decisions are made so that people not offered a home can understand how priority is decided and have trust and confidence in how decisions are made.”
* Some names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of interviewees