Housing

'All my stuff is ruined now': Renter speaks out after home flooded with faeces and sewage

Decoda Smith and her two children are living in temporary accommodation after she opened the door of her home and sewage flooded out

Privste renter Decoda Smith

Decoda Smith was greeted with a sewage leak caused by a blocked communal drain when she opened the door to her rented home. Image: Supplied

A private renter whose flat was flooded with sewage and faeces has vowed never to return to the property as she remains locked in a battle with her landlord over £15,000 in unpaid rent.

Decoda Smith’s flat in Nine Elms, south-west London, was submerged in sewage when she returned to the property on 2 April. It was later discovered that a blocked communal drain caused the flood.

Smith, 34, who was moved into the property after applying to Lambeth Council for homelessness support in 2019, spent time sofa-surfing between April 2022 to November 2023 after deeming the property “unliveable”.

The full-time care co-ordinator said she and her two children, aged nine months and seven years of age, had experienced a raft of issues with the property before it was flooded with sewage, destroying her furniture, clothes and sentimental items from her late mother. Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to replace some of the items.

Decoda Smith private renter had sewage flood her home
Smith was greeted with a deluge of sewage when she opened the door to her rented home. Image: Supplied

“When I got to the house with my kids I realised the house was flooded with faeces. I thought it was a tap that was turned on,” said Smith.

“When I pushed the door I had to back up quickly and that when I saw that the flat was flooded, the toilet was overflowing and every time someone flushed it would come out. Everything was floating, it was disgusting.

“When I saw it, my mind just went elsewhere. It was like when you don’t think it can be real and you have to come to terms with it. Even up to this day I’m still in shock. I did a video and another one and then I broke down because I was like, ‘All my stuff is ruined now.’”

Smith previously told the Big Issue how she had arrived in the UK in 2013 when it became unsafe for her to stay in Jamaica when her mother was killed.

She was living in a hostel with her baby daughter before being helped out of homelessness with the support of social enterprise Beam.

Since being housed in the private rented Nine Elms flat in 2019, she has experienced a number of issues, including a missing extractor fan and resulting problems with damp and mould, a rat infestation and the electrical supply.

Landlord Lara Olarewaju-Sholu told the Big Issue the rats accessed the property following adjacent building work and were blocked after an inspection from environmental health officers.

She added that leaks in the flats above the property caused issues with the electrics and her insurance contractor advised her that the walls need to dry completely.

The situation got so bad that Smith was forced out of her home to sofa surf with family instead until that arrangement meant that she was forced to head back.

Olarewaju-Sholu claimed Smith was offered temporary accommodation properties but rejected them.

“My auntie said you need to leave my house. They’ve asked for you to stay here two weeks and it’s now eight months so, therefore, you need to leave. I had nowhere else to go,” said Smith.

“Obviously, I’m going to try and make sure my kids are sorted more than myself. Any little thing I’m thinking of building up my kids and ensuring that they’ve got a safe place to call home in the meantime. My daughter is like, “We have to keep moving from one place to the next, when are we going to have our own home?”. Everytime she comes up with it, it is difficult.

“The way that we have been treated has not been fair. We have been treated in a very unkind way and it’s inhumane treatment that we’ve gotten.”

Following the sewage leak, Smith has now been given a spot in temporary accommodation.

She added: “They said that they are going to clean the property with the intention of me moving back in, wherein I told them I would never ever move back into that property because there have been too many issues.

private renter
Decoda Smith and her two children are now in temporary accommodation after her flat flooded with sewage, alongside thousands of Londoners. Image: Supplied

“Without a stable home, I can’t get on with my life. I would love to have a stable home for me and my kids, somewhere that is suitable for all our needs.

“Even though we’re here now, I don’t feel like London is even the best place for my kids to grow up. They need to be outside. But with everything that I’ve been through, I need my support system to help me.”

Smith also remains locked in dispute with Olarewaju-Sholu until the landlord receives what she estimates is £15,000 in unpaid rent.

The landlord’s insurance covered the rent while Smith was forced out when the property was “unlivable” between March 2023 and November 2023.

Olarewaju-Sholu wrote to Smith in December 2023 to inform her that she needed to start paying rent again. She told the Big Issue she had previously started repossession proceedings against Smith for being in rent arrears.

Olarewaju-Sholu took Smith to court seeking £15,000 in unpaid rent. She also accused Smith of failing to allow workers into the property to carry out work, delaying completion time.

“I am a mother of three so I understand the importance of the property being kept in good condition, especially as Decoda has young children,” said Olarewaju-Sholu.

“I am not a professional landlord letting out numerous properties, nor am I a rogue landlord. I am a hardworking woman with limited resources letting out one property, with the intention of trying to bolster my income to support my family. Because my resources are limited, if I do not get the rent from the property being let, it puts me in difficulty as I still have to pay the mortgage.

“I am a leaseholder, Lambeth council holds the freehold, all the issues the flat is having is due to Lambeth council, I did not cause the leak in the kitchen nor the faeces in the flat. It took Lambeth a while before they found the cause of the leak and possibly the faecal issue will be sorted soon.”

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The case comes after the Renters Reform Bill failed to pass into law after Rishi Sunak called a general election. The Big Issue’s blueprint for change has urged the next government to finally end no-fault evictions to protect renters living in poverty from facing homelessness.

Smith, who is working with housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa and local MP candidate Florence Eshalomi, said renters need greater protection.

private renter Decoda Smith saw sewage flood her property
The flood of sewage and faeces from the toilet was the result of a blocked communal drain. Image: Supplied

“We do [need more protection] because being in private rented properties we are more likely to become homeless and you’re in fear more than someone who is in social housing,” she said.

“There’s no form of protection for us. They just feel like these people are homeless, they’re desperate, we’re going to get them in anything. And the landlords know these things.

“If we are raising young people and future leaders, they need stable homes.”

Eshalomi, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Vauxhall and Camberwell Green, said the case showed renters like Smith need stronger rights.

“Decoda’s case is one of the most shocking that I have had to deal with as an MP. The uninhabitable conditions that her and her young children were having to pay to live in proves the urgent need for better regulation of the private rental sector,” said Eshalomi.

“Everyone deserves a decent home and to be treated with dignity – the next government must take action to expand the rights of renters so that no family can be treated in the way that Decoda and her children have been again. I will be campaigning to make this a reality in the upcoming election.”

Housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa said: “Labour’s treatment of Decoda and her family has been so appalling I’ve had to reach out directly to the regulator.

“It’s not the first time Lambeth have treated one of their locals like this in their time of need. They have treated Decoda with contempt and have done more to try and avoid having to help her than actually anything meaningful to help. The whole council needs a reset and is by far the worst council I have come across in the UK.”

A Lambeth Council spokesperson told the Big Issue the shortage of social housing in the borough and wider London means families and young people are “living in poor-quality homes or struggling to put a roof above their heads”.

Over 40,000 households are on the waiting list for a social home in Lambeth while the council provides temporary accommodation for more than 3,9000 homeless families, including more than 5,0000 children.

“Ms Smith is not a council tenant and the issues she experienced were in a flat that was privately rented. Following Ms Smith’s bad experience in that privately rented flat, the council arranged temporary accommodation for her,” said the council spokesperson.

“The council initially helped Ms Smith find this privately rented flat after she came to us for assistance in 2019. The landlord is responsible for repairs and maintenance to the property, and the problems highlighted were raised with her to rectify. We are sorry for the inconvenience and frustration Ms Smith has experienced with this property.

private renter Decoda Smith saw sewage flood her property
Smith said she is reluctant to return to the property once it has been professionally cleaned due to a deteriorating relationship with the landlord. Image: Supplied

“After the issues were reported to us earlier in the year, we found emergency accommodation for the family, so they are no longer in that flat. We have since found them temporary accommodation. We ordered a professional clean of the flat, which could not be carried out until an inspection had revealed the source of the problem. This has now been identified as a blockage in the communal drain, which has now been unblocked.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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