Meet the British activist campaigning for tenants: 'They should be treated like human beings'

Kwajo Tweneboa campaigning for the UK's poorest tenants on social media
Kwajo Tweneboa campaigning for the UK's poorest tenants on social media © Observers

Our Observer, Kwajo Tweneboa, lived in appalling conditions in a London council house for years, along with his dying father and two sisters. But he has turned this difficult experience into a powerful drive for change. Today, he travels up and down the UK visiting substandard homes and documenting the conditions on social media. His campaigning is making a difference.

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In January 2020, Tweneboa watched his father, who suddenly became terminally ill with oesophageal cancer, die. He spent his last few days being cared for by nurses in a flat that was infested with cockroaches, mice, rats and asbestos. It had no ceiling in the main room and mouldy walls. “The nurses struggled to look after my father, as the flat had no lights and the tiles were falling apart. And our landlord simply didn’t care,” the 24-year-old told us. 

Tweneboa said that for 18 months, he had repeatedly asked Clarion, Europe’s largest housing association, for repairs in the south London flat – but that his calls went unanswered. As a last resort, he posted a thread of pictures of the squalid flat and the other homes in his estate on Twitter. Clarion repaired the flat and 500 other homes on the estate.

'Not even animals should be living in these conditions'

Ever since, Tweneboa has been posting videos from the dilapidated properties of different tenants – in social housing and low rent private properties. 

@kwajohousing The sad state of Housing in the U.K. 🇬🇧 can you relate? #fyp #poorhousing ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

TikTok video in which Tweneboa shows the worst housing conditions he has seen in 2022.

I've been into homes that have been flooded with raw sewage, I’ve seen countless rat and cockroach infestations and hundreds of mouldy homes. You name it, I’ve seen it. I’ve had thousands of people contact me across the country, sending me pictures of their homes and the awful experiences they’ve had trying to get them fixed.

Not even animals should be living in these conditions. It’s inhumane. I’m tirelessly fighting for tenants to be treated like human beings. But it shouldn’t take a 24-year-old campaigner to go around highlighting this disgrace; landlords should know the difference between right and wrong.

Twitter video in which Tweneboa shows us a home in Islington, London, UK, that has sewage issues, mushrooms, mould and mice.

@kwajohousing This tenants home was flooded with 💩 her situation hasn’t yet been sorted by Great Places Housing Association 🤦🏽‍♂️🇬🇧 #poorhousing #fyp ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

Twitter video in which Kwajo shows us a flooded home that hasn’t been fixed by the Great Places Housing Association.

Video published on Twitter of Green Fanged Tube Web Spiders burrowed into the walls of the property in South London.

Tweneboa’s posts are spurring landlords into action, after decades of neglect. In one case in February 2022, after posting a video of cockroach-infested housing on social media, the family who lived there was moved out to a hotel within 24 hours by L&Q, a leading residential developer, and has since been allocated new permanent allocation.

@kwajohousing 🚨 Lewisham Homes property infested with cockroaches for over 10 years 🪳 neighbours complain of the same #poorhousing #fyp #foryou ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

TikTok video in which Kwajo shows us a Lewisham Homes property infested with cockroaches for over ten years.

'People are dying and landlords are turning a blind eye'

In November 2022, a coroner concluded that a toddler called Awaab Ishak died from a respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould in his home on the Rochdale Boroughwide Housing estate in Greater Manchester, England. Ishak’s father repeatedly raised the issue with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, but no action was taken.

Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died from a respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould in the Rochdale Boroughwide Housing estate in Greater Manchester, England, a coroner ruled.

 

Photos of the condition of Awaab Ishak’s family home in the Rochdale Boroughwide Housing estate in Greater Manchester, England.

@kwajohousing Sewage 🚽, mushrooms🍄, mould, mice 🐁 and 2 bedrooms destroyed since last year #fyp #foryou #housing ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

Kwajo showing a home in similar conditions to the one Awaab Ishak died in.

According to the British National Health Service (NHS), people living with damp or mould in their homes are more likely to have respiratory problems, infections or asthma. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has called mould a key element in indoor air pollution, and a major cause of illness and death worldwide.

Tweneboa told the Observers team that he has witnessed first-hand thousands of social housing tenants living in similar conditions of squalor to Awaab’s family.

Some tenants have been asking for their landlords to fulfil their contractual health and safety duties for decades. Residents are dying, but landlords are turning a blind eye. Their complaints are being ignored and they’re still required to pay. 

I have seen so many health hazards. I once had to take people injured in their own homes to the hospital after a ceiling partially collapsed on top of a tenant while they were cooking. They had complained about cracks in the ceiling but nothing was done. The tenant had disabilities and he had gone nearly a year without a functioning toilet in his property because nobody had come to fix it. I then highlighted this story on social media, and the next day, someone came to fix it. 

But I’m just one person and I can’t fight on behalf of everyone. It’s impossible. Landlords should be fulfilling their contractual duties as landlords, especially because they are receiving rent for a service they’re not delivering.

These kinds of things shouldn’t be allowed, not in this country or in any country in the world. People should feel safe in their own homes.

@kwajohousing Tenant ignored and left with collapsed ceiling🤦🏽‍♂️ #fyp #foryou #housing ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

TikTok video of a home with a collapsed ceiling.

Ishak’s death was by no means the first tragedy linked to poor council housing conditions. In 2017, 72 people died in a fire in the Grenfell Tower, a housing block in West London. Concerns had been raised about the materials used in the building’s external cladding years before the incident. More than five years later, not much has changed for the UK’s poorest tenants. With the cost of living crisis and low temperatures this winter, the situation is only getting worse.

It’s a massive disgrace. Politicians talk about ‘lessons learned’ since Grenfell, but clearly none have been learned. My worry is that similar tragedies will happen and more tenants will die in their homes.

 

 

Video posted on Twitter in which Kwajo says he is having to use his oven to keep himself warm during the cold winter months.

'The housing sector has turned into the Wild West'

The roots of Britain’s housing crisis can be traced to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government and the 1980 Housing Act, which gave council tenants the right to buy their council homes at a reduced price. 

Over time, the sums of money councils could keep to create new homes was reduced and the number of replacement properties fell, meaning those who still required social housing struggled to find homes. When Thatcher took power in 1979, the average council tenant paid the equivalent of €7.50 in rent a week. When she left office in 1990, tenants were paying €30 a week – a rise of 370%. 

In recent decades, the situation for those in need of council flats has become even more difficult. Austerity has led to cuts in housing departments, making them unable to respond to complaints quickly. 

The lack of social housing has forced many low-income households into the lower end of the private rental market, where they have even fewer rights than social renters. Tweneboa told us that many tenants living in poor conditions don’t feel like they can complain, as private landlords can issue no-fault eviction notices without giving a reason.

@kwajohousing Wandsworth Council kicking a tenant out after her mum died 🤦🏽‍♂️😥🇬🇧 #fyp #housing #poorhousing ♬ original sound - Kwajohousing

TikTok video of Tweneboa talking to a Wandsworth council tenant who is being kicked out after her mother died.

Social housing is not just in crisis in the UK – but around the world. Tweneboa told us that people from various countries have been sending him photos of their poor living conditions. In January 2023, Tweneboa will be heading to the US to meet some of the people who contacted him and to document the squalor in American social homes. He also plans to make a trip to Paris later in the year.