When L’Oreal Williams was offered a new home in May 2021 it felt like a long-fought victory. Since 2016, she had been living in Prospect House – a converted office block in Brent that was so badly riddled with mould and damp it had left her young daughter and two other children in the block with sleep apnoea, a condition where you stop breathing at night.
But the new home she was moved to by Brent Council, run by social landlord Notting Hill Genesis, was no better. For the last two years it has been riddled with persistent mould and leaks that Notting Hill Genesis have refused to solve.
“Every window had mould, the bathroom and ceiling had mould, the cupboards had a disgusting amount of mould. We had mould on the floor. Even when you clean it, it comes back,” she said.
“You can watch the mould grow. On the ceiling I can see it multiply.”
In those two years, severe asthma and eczema were added to the sleep apnoea already impacting her daughter.
“My daughter Olivia has been admitted to hospital twice for breathing problems and visited doctors three times last year,” L’Oreal said. “She’s using high-dose steroids [to survive living in the house].”
“It’s taken a toll on me,” she said, “but it’s about how it affects not only the parents, but the children as well. you’re not giving them the best start in life, because long term health issues that could have been prevented. It’s something they can’t even understand.”
L’Oreal’s son is severely sight impaired and has neurological conditions, something made worse by the poor housing.
“Because of how delicate our case has been with our trauma, extra needs and experience at the last property, they should have found us somewhere safe to permanently live,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
She shared a report from her council housing officer, which said the property was “high” risk due to the severe mould and damp that persisted at the property.
After months of complaints and with the help of legal support, in March she finally managed to get Notting Hill Genesis to address the mould in some of the flat, but it still remains all over certain parts of their home.
And now she’s facing eviction, and having to move her family all over again. Notting Hill Genesis’ failure to properly deal with the disrepair convinced the house’s owner to take the property back from Notting Hill Genesis’ management, forcing her to move.
“I have to wait for bailiffs to come before I can get rehoused,” says L’Oreal. “This is people’s lives [that are being ruined]. I’m an aspirational person but because of all this I’ve been stuck for over six years.”
“I don’t know what Notting Hill Genesis should be doing anymore. I don’t think they should exist because they don’t take on responsibility,” she adds. “All the repairs that I have gone through all the housing officers that I’ve gone through, and still there’s no change and no apology.”
The actions of Notting Hill Genesis seem all the more surprising given that the housing association was set up in the 1960s by social activist and pastor Bruce Kenrick as a charity to try and address the growing number of private slum landlords riddling West London.
At the time, Notting Hill was dominated by criminal private landlords like Peter Rachman, who ran more than a hundred run-down mansion housing blocks into which he crammed as many people as possible.
He so badly abused and intimidated his largely West Indian tenants that the term “Rachmanism” entered the Oxford English Dictionary to mean “extortion or exploitation by a landlord of tenants of dilapidated or slum property”.
Kenrick, who went on to found national housing charity Shelter, envisioned the NHHT, as it then was, as a way to buy up, renovate and rent houses at heavily subsidised rates to those in need, and thus undercut slum landlords like Rachman and their crammed, mouldy homes.
But it was also about more than just housing itself. “What struck me painfully was the extent to which people’s problems stemmed from damnable housing conditions. Marriages broke up because one or other partner could no longer stand the strain of living in one room with a stove and sink squeezed into one corner,” he later wrote.
But since the 1960s Notting Hill Genesis has become a different beast. Merging and taking over smaller housing associations particularly since 2000, the company has swelled from a few hundred, to run some 66,000 homes across London and the surrounding counties, with many of its tenants reporting they struggle to get vital repairs done to their properties.
Its size means that Notting Hill Genesis has now become one of the country’s largest housing associations, which privately run much of the UK’s low-cost “social housing”.
L’Oreal’s problems are far from unique. Housing activists and charity workers said Notting Hill Genesis’ housing stock was infamous for the poor conditions and disrepair in its social rent properties.
The poor quality of their homes have been raised in parliament, while the company has been the subject of 21 Housing Ombudsman investigations in the last year.
London Renters Union, which supports multiple Notting Hill Genesis tenants, told Novara Media it was “shocking” to see how much the group had changed since its founding, and warned that more and more tenants’ complaints “fall on deaf ears” as the group had begun to “act more like big businesses”.
“Those original pioneers must be turning in their graves to see what’s happened now,” added Jacky Peacock, Head of Policy at Northwest London based Advice for Renters, which handled L’Oreal’s case.
“If your bread and butter has been looking after social housing tenants, and suddenly you get into development, you start mixing with commercial developers, you start getting people in post with that kind of outlook, and that takes over.”
Despite the concerns, the group was recently given an extension to its multi-million pound contract with Brent Council to manage its temporary accommodation, housing for vulnerable people who are at risk of being homeless, one of whom was L’Oreal.
Notting Hill Genesis held over £1bn worth of private investment properties last year, and the company recorded an operating surplus of £230.7m in its most recent financial report.
At many of its new private developments the number of homes for private sale outnumber the affordable houses almost three to one.
Part of the reason for that is serious cuts to government funding for affordable housing – in its first year in office the coalition government slashed public support by 60% and abolished the auditors and regulators that oversaw housing associations.
Since then there has been a growing focus on the poor conditions in housing association flats, which became front-page news last year after a coroner found that the death of toddler Awaab Ishak in 2020 was caused by severe mould in his family’s flat in Rochdale that their housing association landlord failed to tackle despite repeated complaints.
Since his death, the number of complaints about serious mould in housing association homes has doubled.
Despite the complaints, many people are still living with mouldy homes.
Laimute Vilkonciene has been living in her Notting Hill Genesis flat for four years, but this winter the conditions became almost unbearable.
A faulty boiler and a lack of proper insulation in her flat, she says, has left the place permanently freezing during the winter.
“Notting Hill Genesis has ignored my emails, they don’t call, nothing,” Laimute said. “In four years, they’ve come to the flat just one time.”
That one visit in January only came after she made multiple complaints, she said. A Notting Hill Genesis officer promised to replace the boiler, but she has heard nothing since.
Laimute is disabled and uses benefits, and as a result she says she takes home just £638 a month of income, but as a result of the faulty boiler has been forced to spend £300 to heat the flat for just a couple of hours a day over the winter.
Clara Hill, a spokesperson for London Renters Union which is helping handle Laimute’s case, said: “It is shocking to see a housing association set up to tackle slum housing is now presiding over poor-quality homes and ignoring its tenants.
“Decades of government decisions have led housing associations to act more like big businesses, handing giant pay packets to top execs and prioritising rapid growth while failing their existing tenants.
A spokesperson for Notting Hill Genesis told Novara Media: “We are proud of the work we do to provide homes in and around London for people who might not otherwise be able to afford them. We provide a place to live for more than 65,000 households and while we don’t always get everything right, we are committed to fixing problems and supporting our residents where we do fall short.
“We are investing significant amounts to improve our housing stock, but will of course continue to work with our development partners and contractors to help tackle the housing crisis in the capital.”
They said that they were “sorry to hear” of the return of the damp at L’Oreal’s flat and said they “have arranged for a contractor to treat it again” but claimed some of the responsibility for repairs lay with the building’s owner rather than them.
“Our lease with the landlord on L’Oreal’s home ended in September 2022 and the owner informed us he did not wish to renew as it was no longer cost-effective to rent the flat out,” they said. “As is normal in these circumstances, legal action is now in progress to gain vacant possession, and L’Oreal is working with the local authority to find alternative accommodation.”
The spokesperson said that they had repeatedly checked the boiler at Laimute’s flat and deemed it to be “working as it should” but were “arranging an investigation by another contractor to provide a second opinion.”