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I paid £100 a week for a bunk bed in overcrowded east London flat, says victim of Shadwell fire

Tower Hamlets council has launched a criminal investigation after a fire killed one person in a tiny flat housing 18 people

Zubayer Khan, Shadwell Fire

Zubayer Khan said he paid £100 a week cash for a bed in the tiny flat. Image: Tarling West residents' association/Greg Barradale/Big Issue

A resident of the overcrowded east London flat which saw a fire kill one of its inhabitants has spoken about the conditions inside, as Tower Hamlets council launches a criminal investigation.

Zubayer Khan, who is homeless and living in a hotel provided by the council after the fire, said the flat housed anywhere from 18 to 21 people.

After residents reported multiple complaints over the flat, Tower Hamlets council said it had visited the property and issued enforcement. It is now carrying out a criminal investigation under the housing act, as questions remain over how the flat was allowed to remain dangerously overcrowded.

The Big Issue understands the investigation will focus on overcrowding, management of HMO standards, and licensing conditions, and could go further.

Pictures of the flat show beds crammed into the flat, which has three rooms filled with bunk beds, a single toilet and bathroom, and a small kitchen in which people would also sleep.

One picture shows at least three bunk beds crammed into a single room
One picture shows at least three bunk beds crammed into a single room. Image: Tarling West residents’ association

“All the people were living in the same condition,” Khan told The Big Issue on Monday night.

“People were sleeping in the kitchen,” he said, describing how residents included asylum seekers, students, unemployed people and those with jobs.

All the residents, who are now homeless, are of Bangladeshi origin, and include Spanish, Italian, and French nationals, said the Tarling West residents’ association.

The fire is suspected to have been started by a lithium ion battery used for an e-bike
The fire is suspected to have been started by a lithium ion battery used for an e-bike. Image: Tarling West residents’ association

Firefighters were called to a top floor fire in Shadwell in the early hours of Sunday March 5, and discovered at least 16 people had been living inside the property.  Mizanur Rahman, 41, was rescued from one of the bedrooms and taken to hospital but died on Thursday March 9.

A property with three rooms which can be used as a bedroom or living room – as was the case with 18 Maddocks House – is legally defined as overcrowded if it has more than five people living in it. This was exceeded by almost four times.

Tenants of the flat hung laundry from their beds and curtain rails. Image: Tarling West residents’ association

Khan, who is from Italy and works in McDonald’s while studying at university, described finding the flat after discovering a number in a Whitechapel newsagents. “I find his number here and call this guy, and find this space for sleeping, and he charged me £100 each week for living,” Khan said

Between the residents of the flat, the situation was generating thousands of pounds a month, Khan claimed. Twenty residents paying the same as Khan would generate at least £8,000 a month.

“This is a lot of money. He’s a greedy person who’s only interested in money,” Khan said.

Khan also alleged the landlord – who has denied knowing he was renting to this many people – came to collect cash from the tenants with his wife.

Zubayer Khan, who is living in emergency accommodation after the fire

The fire started as a result of an e-bike battery being charged inside, Khan said, adding that residents working as couriers regularly recharged their batteries overnight.

Rahman, the 41-year-old father of two from Bangladesh who died from injuries sustained in the fire, had come to the UK on February 24 on a tourist visa, Khan said.

“Unfortunately he is a victim of this house,” he added.

The flat, on the Tarling West estate, is leased by a private landlord, with arms-length management body Tower Hamlets Homes managing communal spaces in the building. 

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Tower Hamlets council is providing emergency hotel accommodation to the residents, and providing them with a weekly allowance.

The displaced residents are also being supported by the Tarling West residents’ association, which has set up a fundraising page to help them. The association is demanding compensation for Rahman’s family, a monument for Rahman, and a case worker for the victims to support them for six months.

“Now we’re homeless, we are in a motel,” said Khan.

“Mental support, community support, and home. These are our basic needs.”

He added: “To fix the situation, the first thing is we need accommodation.“

The 17 are facing uncertainty, with some residents’ documents and passports still in the flat, although their condition following the fire is unknown. “Nobody should be in this situation”, Khan added.

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A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson said: “Illegal subletting of properties is abhorrent and dangerous because the welfare of tenants is being put in jeopardy for financial gain. 

“We act on complaints of illegal occupation and subletting by visiting properties and issuing enforcement where appropriate.

“We had visited this property previously following complaints and issued enforcement. We are now carrying out a criminal investigation under the Housing Act.

“It is shocking that Mizanur Rahman has lost their life and our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

Do you have lived experience or opinions about overcrowding, in Tower Hamlets or elsewhere? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

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