Opinion

My life on the frontline of Britain's housing crisis

Charmaine Bynoe showed the reality of the housing crisis in Channel 4’s Council House Britain. Now the Southwark Council housing officer reveals how she is picking up the pieces after the pandemic.

council housing

Charmain Bynoe showed the reality of life as a council housing officer on Channel 4's Council House Britain. Now she has written a book The Estate to give a first-hand account of tackling the housing crisis. Image: Simon & Schuster

We keep hearing the pandemic is over – but it isn’t. The last two and a half years really have been unprecedented and we’ve lived through a once-in-a-lifetime historical event.

As a housing officer, I’m seeing every day the impact that the lockdowns had on everyone in Southwark – and it hasn’t finished yet. That’s really what we’re dealing with at the moment.

For me, one of the most difficult things about the lockdown was dealing with domestic abuse. When people couldn’t leave their homes, we all understood that there were women shut inside with their abusers.

The thought of this preyed on my mind along with a lot of other housing officers, because we knew that when women were at home, instead of being safe from the virus, they were most in danger. I have spoken to women and that’s when you discover what they had to do to survive this imprisonment.

In many cases they were trapped with their children, so they kept things on an even keel in any way they could. The pandemic was incredibly difficult for so many mothers, but for someone whose partner was actually harming her, or who was afraid of her partner, this was a silent crisis behind closed doors that no-one else would even know about.

But now the lockdowns are over, things that were held in the dark are coming out. Survivors are telling us their issues and we’re trying to assist them as best we can. Some of them are brave enough to leave their abusive relationships and I, like other officers, am working with women who need somewhere permanent to live, somewhere to escape to. Right now I’m helping a tenant to get out of the situation she was in and into temporary accommodation so that her abuser doesn’t know where to find her. Assisting her and others like her is a very big priority for me.

During the pandemic, we also got the homeless off the street by using our empty tower blocks to house them. This confirms that solutions to problems like this do exist, and we can all learn by that. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

I also worry about the effect the pandemic has had on people’s mental health. It made a lot of problems worse, and we’re seeing this play out in anti-social behaviour and the numbers of tenants in crisis. It’s difficult when someone’s anti-social behaviour is caused by their mental health issues because often we know that they’re not to blame for what’s happening. But at the same time, if a person is being very disruptive in a building or making a lot of noise or leaving rubbish lying around, it’s awful for other residents. As housing officers, we have to get involved to ensure that everyone’s health and safety is not compromised.

And, of course, during the pandemic all our normal maintenance and repairs had to stop. We couldn’t send teams into properties unless there was an emergency. We prioritised leaks, electrical faults and situations that could escalate and put the resident in physical danger, especially our vulnerable residents who were always our main priority. But everything else – mouse infestations, or doors hanging off, or staircases wobbling – had to wait. Now the backlog is enormous – it’s not hundreds of jobs that didn’t get done, it’s thousands.

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Most of our tenants are being very patient and understanding that we’re doing our best to catch up – but not everybody understands. And of course each person’s issues are major to them.

council housing
The Estate by Charmain Bynoe releases on August 4.

Housing officers are seen as the face of the council, so we get the brunt of the complaints. Our tenants see us and know us and if they’ve got a problem, it’s us they vent their anger to.

We understand how long they’ve been waiting and why they are upset, but so often the only answers we can give them aren’t the ones they want to hear. We’re under-resourced and with staff still catching Covid it can be very stressful – but we plod on. Being overstretched isn’t a new situation for us, but the pandemic has made it more acute.

The good you do will follow you. I say this in the book and it’s something that helps me to keep going.

For me, it’s what being a housing officer is really all about, now more than ever. We go on doing our best to help our tenants, and we know how much the majority of them appreciates what we do.

Charmain Bynoe is a housing officer for Southwark Council. Her book The Estate is out on August 4 (Simon & Schuster)

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