By Carl Davis
We may never know the exact details, but sometime in 2019 Sheila Seleoan, a 61 year old Peabody resident, died alone in her Peckham home. Her body went undiscovered for almost three years despite scores of complaints to Peabody from neighbours. Some even lit incense sticks around the door to mask the stench.
Residents complained on as many as 50 occasions about the foul smell and state of the property but Peabody decided the issue wasn’t a priority during the pandemic. Thousands of pounds of rent arrears had accumulated, and window cleaning and other routine maintenance and repairwork had been undertaken on and around Sheila’s flat during this period.
Earlier this week police broke into Sheila’s flat and discovered her remains after a neighbour reported her broken balcony door banging during storm Eunice.
Off the Radar
During the pandemic Peabody and other large housing associations fanfared how they were prioritising checks on elderly and vulnerable tenants. For all that, somehow Sheila fell off the official radar. Alarm bells should have been ringing. Certainly her neighbours raised the alarm, but still the alarm bells didn’t ring. Somehow they were muffled and ignored.
Peabody obviously prefers people to see this tragic and appalling sequence of events as a ‘one off’, But we must seriously question that official line and ask whether some social landlords have become too big, corporately remote, and bureaucratic to care.
Eviction Threats to the Deceased
In 2019 a lone elderly neighbour of mine committed suicide by starving himself to death. Yet beforehand I did everything within my power to raise his appalling circumstances with our landlord L&Q and the Regulator of Social Housing – all to no avail.
I had to notify L&Q of his death, but six months after his passing he was receiving legal threats of eviction over gas checks and rent arrears that I had to pass on to the council’s funeral officer. The same happened with Sheila – her mailbox in the communal hall was crammed with letters from the landlord.
My neighbour had no immediate family as such, but I wondered how bereaved families were left feeling by this sort of completely insensitive and inhuman bureacratic behaviour.
As a teenager I had been summarily evicted from the flat I shared with my sister by a private landlord days after she had been killed in a road accident. I didn’t expect social landlords to behave in the same way, but apparently they do. Social media is awash with stories of how cruelly insensitive some of the larger more remote housing associations can be.
No Surplus of Compassion
What has happened to social housing? When I first became an L&Q tenant a Housing Officer cycled round to pop in and ask me if everything was OK.
Over the last year, stories about horrific disrepair in social housing have dominated the headlines. Time and time again, the most horrific failings involve people who are vulnerable, as exemplified by housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa’s revelations.
We need to look at this model of social housing where remote unrepresentative boards focus on expanding the corporate footprint and generating surpluses above all else.
We need a return to the orginal values of social housing where social landlords cover the basics rather than abysmally disempowering and failing tenants and residents, all while spending huge amounts of money promoting the supposed social responsibility and community good works of the brand.
It isn’t simply Peabody or L&Q. Many of the larger social landlords have just lost sight of their tenants and residents, they’ve simply become a means to an end.
Solutions from Within
No establishment organisation or tweak in legislation can provide a solution to all the ills of the broken housing model in Britain. The answer will not come from above, but in the form of mass self-organisation among tenants and residents.
Many organisations are doing sterling work challenging the different symptoms of the housing crisis such as the sale of social housing, the scandal of empty homes, monstrous bills for cladding remediation, service charge abuse, homelessness – the list goes on.
These groups offer the start of tenant and resident self-organisation, and everyone concerned about housing should try to get involved, despite all the other calls on our time and energy.
Demanding Decent Homes for All
Once a year, scores of grass roots organisations come together to link their campaigns, strengthen ties, and find areas of collaboration. This year, we hope you will join us.
Homes for All Housing Summit, 11am-3pm, Saturday 12th March
26 February 2022
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.