A rogue landlord and a negligent local council are being blamed for the death of a man in a fire in a Tower Hamlets flat. However, the tragic incident also points to the institutional racism that pervades UK society – and particularly the housing sector.
In the early hours of 5 March, a fire so severe it took 30 firefighters two hours to control it broke out in the Maddocks House estate in Shadwell, east London. Its source was a flat that had only two bedrooms yet housed 18 people, mostly Bangladeshi students and delivery drivers (it’s suspected the trigger was a faulty e-bike battery). Between them, the men paid around £8,000 a month for the privilege of being packed into bunk beds in mouldy, airless bedrooms. One of them, 41-year-old Mizanur Rahman, died in hospital from his injuries. It’s a miracle the others all survived.
In short, a landlord was exploiting these people. Tower Hamlets council had investigated the property in 2022. As the Guardian reported, resident organisation Maddocks House Support Group is claiming that both the council and the London Fire Brigade (LFB) knew the landlord was dangerously overcrowding the flat.
Other residents of Maddocks House had made complaints about the flat to Tower Hamlets Homes (THH), representatives from the Council and to other agencies, about leaks and other problems resulting from its dangerous overcrowding and poor state of repair for years, since 2019 at least. The Residents Association has for a long time struggled with THH’s poor management of the estate and lack of attention to residents calls for attention to the poor conditions on the estate. The Residents Association is currently preparing a report about the fire summarising this history of complaints, poor repairs and negligence on the part of the Council and its managing agent THH.
We are concerned about the criminal investigation being led by the London borough of Tower Hamlets, who are in effect investigating themselves. We are worried about them deflecting blame when senior officials from the borough and Tower Hamlets Homes bear responsibility.
All of this has echoes of Grenfell. The situation is also similar in terms of council negligence to a recent fire in Haringey. There, residents had also been warning of the council’s failures, this time over fire safety. However, in Tower Hamlets the landlord’s horrific attitude, and the council’s negligence, sum up the institutionally racist housing sector in the UK.
Meanwhile, just 2% of white British households are overcrowded. This has a lot to do with the types of properties people live in. Social housing landlords are disproportionately overcrowding Black and brown people, as are private landlords:
Landlords squeezing too many people into one property is also an issue of class for Black and brown people. The poorest people were the most overcrowded:
Of course, none of this is new. Poor Black and brown people’s experiences of housing in the UK have barely improved since at least the 1960s. Moreover, as Kevin Gulliver wrote for the London School of Economics, other institutionalised racism then intersects with housing:
Over-concentration of BAME households in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain’s cities, linked to poor housing conditions and lower economic status (some of Marmot’s ‘social determinants’) ensure negative impacts on health, culminating in lower life expectancy and higher morbidity rates among ethnic minorities.
welfare reforms [are] disproportionately impacting ethnic minorities. The roll-out of Universal Credit is having greater effects on the living standards of BAME people since a larger percentage experience poverty
The death of Mizanur Rahman was completely and utterly preventable. It was a result of the criminal activity of the landlord that he died, but just as equally due to the negligence of the licencing authority, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and the housing management organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes, which has just gone back into control of Tower Hamlets Council.
However, all this leads back to the racism against Black and brown people that’s still entrenched in UK society. As the Canary‘s Maryam Jameela previously wrote:
This rotting society is only as good as its most vulnerable people. What does that make the UK? A country that has unending sympathy and generosity of spirit for whiteness in all its guises, and a vicious disdain for brown people.
Mizanur Rahman’s death on the watch of his rogue landlord and Tower Hamlets council only serves to underline this.
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