Activism

Housing estate plagued by mould, damp and dire conditions. Now, residents are fighting back

Residents of the Nags Head estate in Tower Hamlets are fighting back against their landlord, Peabody, and demanding better living conditions

tower hamlets

Residents are coming together to fight for better living conditions. Image: Andy Parsons

Lorraine Byrne scrubs and scrubs the walls but black mould keeps coming back. She lives in a damp and cold two-bed council flat with her husband and four children on the Nags Head estate in Tower Hamlets, East London.

Last winter she moved the chest of drawers in the bedroom where her three eldest children sleep, and mould covered in fluff stretched up the unit. She was pregnant at the time.

“I just want to know that my kids aren’t suffering from breathing in those damp spores,” Byrne, 38, says. “There’s only so much you can do. We can mask it but it’s still there. It’s in the air. It’s in the walls. It’s like one of those horror movies.”

Lorraine Byrne and her baby. She worries for her kids’ health. Image: Andy Parsons

Byrne’s neighbours on the Tower Hamlets estate face similarly dangerous living conditions – black mould causing respiratory problems, slugs coming through the floors, crumbling staircases and mice.

Their housing association Peabody, a non-profit claiming “to create affordable homes and inclusive communities where people can flourish”, has failed to provide long-term solutions.

Residents on the Nags Head estate have had enough of feeling ignored and blamed. They are grouping together to fight back and demand better living conditions.

Supported by the London Renters Union, Disability Rights UK and Medact, the residents have been connected to lawyers and journalists putting pressure on the housing association, and they are hopeful that they will finally see change and inspire other estates to rise up against their landlords.

“I want to get my placard out and go marching,” Byrne says. “We were made to feel like we were alone and it was our fault, but we’re not on our own. We’re not going to suffer in silence.”

The group was started by residents Kevin Biderman and his partner Helena Walsh, who both have experience in activism. There has always been old-fashioned neighbourliness on the estate, which grew during the pandemic. They hosted gardening activities and a Jubilee party.

Helena Walsh and Kevin Biderman. Image: Andy Parsons

As they became closer, they realised the severity of problems. They began leafleting and started a WhatsApp group and now have a newsletter and meet regularly in a local pub where they are referred to as “the mould people!”

“We wouldn’t have thought mould would bring people together, but it’s also been really lovely,” Biderman laughs. “Individually we are disempowered but, when we work together, it is fantastic.”

For their first eight years in the property, the bath’s overflow pipe was unconnected so water went into the foundations. Slugs came up. They have also had cockroaches, mice, silverfish and mould.

“If we weren’t washing our daughter’s room, it would be covered in black mould,” Biderman says. His daughter has just turned 18. “One day we moved her wardrobe and saw black mould behind it. In lockdown, we had to spend a lot of time in the house and she started having respiratory problems.”

The mould on Pearce’s wall. Image: Andy Parsons

Next door, 57-year-old Simon Pearce rents an almost-identical property. His doctor has told him not to scrub the mould off because it was damaging his chest. One room is now unliveable, mould stretching up the wall and around the windows. It’s freezing cold, even on a mild day, and damp hangs in the air. 

“Peabody did a mould wash or two, but that’s not a solution,” Pearce says. “The spores stay in the plaster.”

After Pearce’s property featured on Channel 4 and ITV News, Peabody promised action – but that was more than two months ago and nothing has been done. 

He says: “They’ve done nothing for seven years. ‘Speak to the solicitor’ is essentially my line now. They said three years ago they were going to come so I booked a week off work. Nobody came. I phoned and phoned and phoned and got no response.”

A spokesperson for Peabody said: “We’re really sorry for the poor conditions in some of the homes and communal areas of this aging estate. It’s clear that wide-ranging improvements need to be made and we’ve launched a programme of repairs to fix the immediate problems, while also looking at longer-term investment. 

“We’ve met with residents and have partnered with a specialist company to inspect every home on the estate, ensuring we’re aware of every issue and can make the necessary repairs. It’s our priority to ensure all Peabody homes are safe and well maintained.”

Peabody claims to have spent £356m on looking after residents’ homes and it plans to spend a further £2bn over the next few years. It also says it carries out more than 1,000 proactive home inspections each month and has a dedicated damp and mould team.

Biderman says Peabody has recently increased all tenants’ rent on the Nags Head estate.



Poor living conditions are a widespread problem across the UK. Nearly 5,000 excess deaths were caused by cold and damp homes last winter, according to the End Fuel Poverty Coalition. 

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in 2020 put a spotlight on the catastrophic health impacts of poor-quality homes, but stories continue to emerge. The Big Issue exposed a recent case where a baby was hospitalised six times because of mould.

In April, the government is introducing Awaab’s Law, which will force social landlords to make emergency repairs within 24 hours. It is a significant step towards ensuring healthier living environments in social housing, but residents of Nags Head are demanding bigger and long-term changes to their properties.

Khadija Hussain-Chowdhury hopes for a better future. Image: Supplied

Mould is not the only concern. Khadija Hussain-Chowdhury, who lives with her dad and brother, has faced extensive housing problems which have exacerbated her physical and mental health conditions.

The 19-year-old suffers from anxiety, depression, asthma and has ligament issues in her knee. She recently fell down the stairs, up to her property on the third floor. “It cracked completely. It crumbled under me. I ended up falling down the stairs and fractured my foot.”

“It’s not just the physical impacts but also the emotional mental impact,” she adds. “I haven’t left the house. The only time I left the house I ended up having a panic attack that almost sent me to hospital.

The broken staircase in Hussain-Chowdhury’s building. Image: Khadija Hussain-Chowdhury

“Prior to this incident, my anxiety was starting to get a little better. I was slowly being able to leave my house. But this completely set me back. I was making so much progress. I was so proud of myself and now it’s all just gone back to nothing.”

Peabody boarded up the stairs after Hussain-Chowdhury featured on ITV News – but the stairs are now uneven and she says she has spoken to residents who have “fallen down the stairs because of their quick-fix methods”. 

It’s the strong community keeping residents on the Nags Head estate – as well as there being few options for affordable housing in London. Peabody offers a combination of market rent homes, social housing and key worker accommodation.

Mikey Erhardt, housing campaigner at Disability Rights UK, said: “It is appalling that the tenants of Nags Head suffered for so long before Peabody even acknowledged the issue. We know this culture of mismanagement, poor conditions, and tenant exploitation is rife across the social housing sector.

The staircase boarded up by Peabody. Image: Khadija Hussain-Chowdhury

“The consequences of their negligence crisis are stark and frightening. The disabled tenants of Nags Head need certainty and consistency in their housing situations. Peabody needs to take this situation seriously, finally listening to the tenants of Nags Head and working with them so everyone gets warm, safe, accessible housing.

Inside the house, Hussain-Chowdury says there is condensation and dripping pipes. Her dad sleeps in the living room and when it was raining, water kept coming into the living room because the sealant was broken. They had to chase Peabody multiple times before it was fixed.

“Peabody negate responsibility through outsourcing,” Biderman says. “Even with damp and mould, sometimes someone would just come with a bit of mould spray and we could probably have done that ourselves. There wasn’t the level of care we needed.”

Peabody has sent a surveyor round properties, but residents claim they were there just 15 minutes. By comparison, an independent surveyor was there for two hours.

The residents believe huge structural changes need to be made in each home to make them “fit for human habitation”. They share walls, ceilings and floors. Every property needs to be fixed or problems will spread.

For Byrne’s family who are unable to afford anything but the two-bed flat assigned to them by the council, moving is not an option. She has noticed two of her children suffer with coughs, possibly caused by the mould. “If I’m brutally honest, I hope they bulldoze the whole lot down and rehouse us,” she says. 

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said: “We are disappointed to hear about the issues residents are facing. We expect all housing providers in Tower Hamlets to ensure their homes are of a good standard, safe, and free from damp and mould.”

They advised social housing tenants to lodge a formal complaint with their landlord and, if they are not satisfied with the response, to escalate their complaint to the housing ombudsman.

The residents of Nags Head agree there is power in joining their neighbours to fight for better living conditions, and they are hopeful Peabody will finally be forced to take action.

“I’m pretty sure that every single person on this estate has experienced negligence from Peabody,” Hussain-Chowdhury says. “No matter how big or small the negligence is, every voice matters. There is strength in numbers.

“We’re fighting for our voices to be heard. We want our problems taken seriously. We’re paying all this flipping rent and council tax. They’re not doing their part in keeping us safe. We deserve to feel safe.”

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