The following account is written by a member of ACORN Birmingham, and tells of how her mother fought and won in the face of eviction, unfit temporary accommodation and council inaction.
Like many others, my mother was abandoned by Birmingham City Council for years in temporary accommodation that was unfit for human habitation. The circumstances under which she ended up there aren’t uncommon and many face the same insecurity and uncertainty.
In 2016, her landlord served her with a section 21 eviction notice which he claimed was in order to repossess his home for his own use. However, as many renters will have experienced, this was not the case and he gave the lease to new tenants for a higher rent.
This is how my mother found herself with four of her other kids living in a Bed & Breakfast until the City Council helped her obtain a temporary roof over their heads.
The government spends more money housing people in haphazard, unsuitable, temporary accommodation, than fixing the underlying issues with the housing system and providing safe and secure long term accommodation.
At first, the temporary accommodation was a relief from the Bed and Breakfast as there were no curfews and she did not have to worry about being late back from the school run, or getting back from work. But the façade held a grim situation that would be the source of her nightmare for the next 5 years.
The property my mother was placed in changed ownership repeatedly, faster than a round of musical chairs! It was hard to keep track of who was the landlord at any given point, despite it being overseen by an agency and coming under a Council temporary accommodation contract.
This meant that all repairs went undone and overlooked for one reason or another. There was no way of getting anything sorted, and no way of sorting one’s own repairs as temporary accommodation contracts forbid you from bringing your own furniture, doing your own paint jobs, or replacing your own kitchen equipment.
Structurally, the house should have never passed building safety checks. The property genuinely had no insulation in the walls, as we found out on a fateful day when the door handle accidentally hit the wall and it gave way to a hole that you could put your whole arm through.
This meant a chronic infestation of pests, constant draft and heat loss, as well as nothing to hold the damp so the walls in the house regularly wept, every morning and night possibly saddened by the catastrophic structural failures.
Another day, the front living room’s floor collapsed in a corner, giving way to the street parallel to the house. My mother informed the agency and requested repair, but nothing was done, so we shoved a sofa in front of the gap to stop the cold from entering. The gap became an entry tunnel for all the street rats looking for somewhere warm to spend the night or give birth.
Things kept getting worse. The beds installed in the property had no nails holding them together, and were standing by sheer luck and the prayers of horrified sleepers. They had also painted over the previous black mould rather than fixing it and it came back with a vengeance, uncleanable and unfixable.
The windows were not double glazed and the property lost heat on the regular, this was costly to maintain for a single mum with four kids to look after. There were additional costs as my mother had to place all her items in storage as the contract forbade her from bringing them into the property. And to make it more unbearable, neither the fridge nor the cooker worked properly.
What ensued were five years of depression, anxiety, monetary loss, and health issues for my mother and all of my siblings.
We repeatedly contacted the agency who shunned their responsibility, passing the buck to the landlords, and absentee landlords who were missing as they sold the property to others. We repeatedly contacted the council, who sent 6 different emails between 2018 to 2021 promising that they would get back to us within a period of 30 days. But they never did.
Eventually, we reached out to Environmental Health and local MPs. The MPs were very saddened and sorry that my mother lived in these appalling conditions (eye roll) and wished there was something they could possibly do - because as local MPs in charge of their local constituency there was nothing they had the authority to do other than beg for votes during the election season.
As for Environmental Health, they informed us that they don’t directly deal with individuals and we should reach out again to the never responding mythical City Council Housing Representative. Exasperated and defeated, my mother and I decided to take the case to the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman had reviewed the case, were horrified and advised that it should go from their housing team to the social welfare team. Subsequently, the social welfare team required a third party to sign off on the case for them to take it on.
This is when we approached ACORN. As I had previously taken part in an anti-eviction action with ACORN in London, I approached ACORN Birmingham to enquire if this was something they could help with.
And there began a relentless, 5 month campaign, in which we left no stone unturned.
We drafted an action plan at an action planning meeting and rallied support from other local residents. We took action, with protests outside of the agency offices, and at the council!
When we threatened to send the pictures of the property conditions to media outlets, the Council mobilised in a surprisingly quick manner. They set up a case worker for my mum in order to tackle the issue. They sent surveyors to the property: who also confirmed it is not fit for human living, and who confirmed the house cannot be simply repaired whilst there are tenants in it.
The agency did try to play every mediocre circus trick up their sleeves, turning up unannounced and with no tools in order to do ‘repairs’ but by then my mother knew her rights and their clown tricks did not work.
Eventually, on a random day, the rudest most surly Council staff gave my mother a call to let her know about a vacant Council home and that she needs to be moved in, and should she refuse she will be deemed no longer needing help.
Genuinely speaking, the property had no proper entry door, it had been barricaded for however long, the windows had metal sheets over them as it had been broken in before, the flooring was stripped and the rooms in a derelict condition. But… it was better than the hovel she was staying in, so my mother took out a loan to fix the flooring and walls.
And with the help of ACORN, the door and windows were fixed. Of course in the beginning there was a lot of bickering back and forth with the Council, maybe to give us a final nostalgia of their wonderful and helpful attitude before letting her begin a new and safer life.
But we had done it, forcing the agency to acknowledge their wrong doing, making the council take over the Dickensian property, and ensuring that my mum was transferred to a safe council home.
The sunset from my mothers new house
The solidarity we received was an eye-opener for my mother, who had never joined a union before and who was very touched that strangers who didn’t know her were willing to stand up with her.
People like her are very marginalised. They are hardworking and friendly like everyone else, and give back to the community. However, because of cultural and language barriers they are often side-lined as undeserving of help by institutions and the government.
Now, the change in her mood is noticeable. My mother is thriving, she has enrolled in a GCSE course and hopes to eventually make it to University. Her home is her safe space, she no longer experiences as many health flare-ups and my siblings finally have a garden to play in!
ACORN is now synonymous with the rights and dignity of tenants, the name alone is enough to put the fear of justice in the slimy landlord class. I have since convinced others to join ACORN and the results were astonishing. There is a beautiful solace in knowing that together, tenants stand strong in the face of adversities. When the tenants are united, we will never be defeated! Join us!