Local residents repeatedly warned a city landlord about a dangerously overcrowded apartment, but the problem wasn’t resolved before a deadly fire killed a man, the Guardian has learned.
At least 18 men, mostly Bangladeshi students and delivery men, were squeezed into bunk beds in a two-bedroom flat in Maddocks House Council Block in Tower Hamlets, east London. Some residents slept in the kitchen, a source said, and tenants collectively paid the flat’s private tenant about £8,000 a month.
The council’s failure to stop overcrowding has prompted the Tarling West Residents’ Association to make allegations of “negligence”.
A fire spread in the early hours of March 5 and 15 people in the home escaped. A man, local name Mizanur Rahman, had to be rescued by firefighters but later died in hospital.
A neighbor told the Guardian they had complained to Tower Hamlets Homes about problems caused by overcrowding in late 2021. The lack of a satisfactory response from the county’s landlords at arm’s length prompted them to file complaints in April and September 2022, they said.
The resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said she even accompanied the landlord’s contractor to the apartment. One photo shows at least eight bunk beds crammed into a single room, strewn with belongings and showing signs of damp and mold on the walls. The resident estimated that there were 22 beds in the two-bedroom property. Heavy use of the single bathroom resulted in severe water damage to the properties below. A defective e-bike battery is suspected to be a possible cause of the fire. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) says it treated 88 fires with e-bikes in 2022.
“We feared for our safety,” said the resident. “So many boys lived there. If there was a fire, we were concerned and let the council know.”
The home is one of 732,000 in England where officials say people are suffering from overcrowding. Last week Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, launched the Make Things Right campaign, urging social housing tenants to make grievances. He said: “Too many social housing tenants are being abandoned and ignored.”
London’s Tower Hamlets borough, which is responsible for housing enforcement, admitted it had received reports of overcrowding. It said it had “acted on those complaints with the powers at our disposal”. However, despite complaints filed in August against the condition of the property, the council granted a license to use the property as a multi-family dwelling (HMO), making overcrowding a criminal offence.
Zubayer Khan, 34, who lived in the burnt-out flat, said the private landlord charged each resident £100 a week. He urged the government to tackle the housing crisis, saying: “It happened in my house but tomorrow it could be you.”
“It was very unexpected and we lost one person,” he said before a vigil for Rahman on Sunday. “It could have been me. I expect the government to take appropriate steps to resolve this issue.”
The affected residents have been accommodated in a budget hotel but have lost their belongings, so a fundraiser has been launched to help them.
A community spokesman said they were “deeply saddened” by the death.
“We are working with the Police and London Fire Brigade to investigate the cause of the fire and the living conditions of the flat.”
Scotland Yard said the fire was “not suspicious” and the LFB would make a police referral at a later date if necessary.
The local branch of the London Renters’ Union said the fire was “not the first and will not be the last tragedy unless the housing system is radically reformed”. It said the fire and its aftermath were “due to the exploitative practices and lax nature of our housing system.”
The Tarling West Residents’ Association tweeted their condolences, saying: “The fact that this tragedy has been linked to a lax council and a rogue owner only adds to our anger and frustration… It is unacceptable that people should continue to lose their lives as a result of the.” Negligence of those responsible for providing safe and adequate shelter.”