The smell of damp hits you as you walk through the front door of 7 Hilliard House, Prusom Street.
The musky stale smell doesn’t go away. It sticks to you.
Every room in this two bedroom council flat has been invaded by rising damp.
Anita Staite has lived in Wapping for 30 years.
She has lived in her flat in Prusom Street for the last five years and has had major problems with damp all that time.
And no one seems to care enough to fix it.
This flat, like many in Wapping and throughout our Borough, is managed by Tower Hamlets Homes (THH).
THH is what is known as an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) that manages social housing such as Anita’s on behalf of the Council.
Anita lives here with her two grandchildren, six and four years of age, for whom she is the legal guardian.
One of her grandchildren was asthmatic before Anita moved in to the flat but she did not realise the damp problem at the time.
Since then she has learned from other tenants that the flat has had damp problems for at least 15 years.
Because of the pervasive damp throughout the property the two children easily catch colds, and this can often lead to a hospital visit for the asthmatic child.
It gets worse
The damp in the children’s bedroom was so bad that it infected and eventually destroyed the wooden beds the children slept on.
Fortunately for Anita a charity gave her £300 to replace the beds.
Guess what happened? These beds were also destroyed by the damp.
A relative gave Anita a double bed that is in the living room.
The two children have to sleep in this bed as their own bedroom is literally uninhabitable.
While a bit better for the kids this makes life harder for Anita.
She can’t relax and watch TV in the evening because the children sleep underneath it.
And the living room is also riddled with damp.
Touch the carpet against the outer wall and it is wet. Not damp, wet.
Go into Anita’s bedroom and again the damp is everywhere.
Anita shows me the damp behind one wardrobe and the towels she has to use to soak up the damp.
Any clothes stored in the wardrobe are slowly destroyed by the moisture.
Damp on the other bedroom wardrobe is clearly visible on the outside.
There is damp all around the front door.
There is damp around the bathroom window.
Every room in this flat is slowly being eaten away by the moisture.
And all the contents of the flat. Toys, clothes, shoes, posters, books, everything is being destroyed. And three peoples lives.
‘Open the windows and turn on the heating’
The official advice Anita has been given is to ‘Open the windows and turn on the heating’.
Not exactly a cost saving tip for someone on a budget. And certainly not the way to solve the cause of the problem.
The other bright idea is ‘move the wardrobes away from the wall’. This flat is not a spacious warehouse conversion. There is nowhere to move the wardrobes to.
Anita has been battling to solve her damp problem for many years and, as you can see from the photographs, she is losing.
The damp and the problems it causes gets her down and she feels embarrassed to ask friends round.
Because of the double bed in the living room there is not much free space.
In fact there is no free space.
Just a cosmetic job
THH contractors have made numerous visits to treat the damp.
But all they do is a cosmetic job, stripping wallpaper and treating the surface of the wall.
The cause of the damp remains. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of building knows that treating damp is a waste of money until the source is fixed.
The damp comes up from the floor so it doesn’t take an expert to work out that there might be something wrong with the damp proofing of the building. No one knows for sure because no one can be bothered.
Outside a thicker line of concrete can be seen in the brickwork and Anita thinks this is the ‘damp course’.
And of course in November Anita had the Mayor’s canvassers knocking on her door – and she has a letter from the Mayor just like mine.
Guess what she asked the canvassers to ask the Mayor to fix?
Here is his reply:
Dear Ms Staite,
I thank you for your recent enquiry.
I can confirm that I have taken this matter up on your behalf with the appropriate Officers.
I shall, of course, contact you once I have any further information.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets”
But even before Anita had got this letter she had phoned Tower Hamlets Homes repairs department and was told that someone would call on 30th December.
No one turned up.
She rang again on 2nd January and was told that whoever told her someone was going to come round on the 30th of December shouldn’t have said that as everyone was on their Christmas break.
Various calls were made and then Anita got this letter from Councillor Rabina Khan.
“20 January 2014
Dear Ms Staite,
I have now heard from officers regarding the above matter that I took up on your behalf. A copy of their reply is enclosed.
I trust you will find the contents self-explanatory and I hope this satisfactorily answers your query. However, if there is anything further that I can assist you with please do not hesitate to contact me.
Councillor Rabina Khan
Cabinet Member for Housing
Other calls were made and visits promised and someone turned up on the 23rd of January and the 24th January. But nothing was really getting done.
On Wednesday 29th January Anita was told that the Repairs Manager could not come out to inspect her flat without being accompanied by the Housing Officer.
Quite why he could not come along is unclear. Shy maybe?
And yes, you guessed it, it seems impossible to track down the Housing Officer. So no Housing Officer no Repairs Manager and no repairs.
Still waiting, damp still rising
So Anita is still waiting and the damp is still rising.
The reality is that even if the shy and retiring Repairs Manager finally ventures into Wapping and visits Anita not much will change.
“I don’t think they are going to do anything because it costs too much,” says Anita.
Because it is apparent to even a blind mole that Anita will have to continue living like this until the source of the damp is identified and repaired. It is a waste of everyones time and money and effort to carry out cosmetic work as has previously happened.
But this is standard practise by the THH contractors. The day before I met Anita or even knew of her situation I was talking to a friend who lives in Reardon House. She was talking about the damp problems there and told me that if your flat had damp the only thing that ever happened was that someone would turn up and paint over it.
Anita is the proof that this is what happens.
And how many other Anita’s are out there?
Maybe those of us (me included) who whinge about the speed of our broadband connections should stop and think of Anita. Broadband? Luxury. Just a dry flat would be good.
As I write this I see an email that mentions the £41,000 a year that is spent cleaning the dog mess in the 11 streets around the home of Deputy Mayor Ohid Ahmed. No other streets mind. Just the ones around his house.
I wonder how many homes like Anita’s that £41,000 could cure of rising damp? Quite a few.
Anita is a quiet, modest, ordinary woman who is just trying to get by and care for her grandchildren.
As a society we should be ashamed that in 2014 we are still content to allow people to live in these conditions.
Tower Hamlets Homes should be ashamed that they treat their tenants like this.
And the THH and LBTH Officers who don’t seem interested in doing their jobs – but are happy to take the cash thanks – should be introduced to the delights of Job Seekers Allowance.
Our Mayor who gives Anita a glossy ‘Elect Me! Elect Me!’ leaflet with the paragraph below needs to stop believing his own PR and get out on the streets. (Hint: Streets are those things the Deputy Mayor likes having cleaned).
That new kitchens and bathrooms have been fitted in Council homes is to be applauded. But you can’t help wondering if that was done with one eye on the ballot box? And the tricky situations like this ignored. Who knows.
Will Anita vote at the Council elections? Maybe for a politician who actually does something instead of just talking and preening? I would not be surprised if Anita did not vote at all because if the current system does not work why should the same system run by someone else be any better?
Crazy, dangerous and incompetent
As we leave Anita shows me the family photos on the wall from her childhood. Then she tells me about the pay as you go gas meter under the kitchen sink. And this is just surreal. You would not believe this without photographs.
For some reason the gas meter in Anita’s flat, and I think all the other flats in Hilliard House, were installed under the kitchen sink. So every time she puts a tenner on her card and puts it in the meter she has to remove all the usual kitchen stuff from under the sink to get to the meter. It is quite a stretch. I have a meter like this in my flat but it is in a cupboard at a normal height.
Even worse the lever to turn off the mains gas supply is recessed somewhere underneath the gas meter. I looked with a torch and could not even see it.
Apparently every flat in Hilliard House has the mains gas supply cut off in the same place. So in an emergency no one would be able to turn off their gas.
Is that even legal Tower Hamlets Homes?
Dreading the snow but thinking of others
Anita dreads the harsher winter weather and especially the snow. Despite this she is not wallowing in self pity and still thinks of others.
“I feel so sorry for the people in Somerset with their homes flooded,” says Anita as we leave.