Just a few doors down from symbols of Hackney’s gentrification – vegan cafes, trendy bars and luxury flats – sits 600 Kingsland Road, a dark, old, once-beautiful building on the corner of Dalston Junction.
Inside number 600, there is a world very different from modern day Hackney and the glossy world of the iPhone billboard that until last weekend was plastered on the outside. Burglaries, mice, bedbugs, leaking water and rotting windows are all part of everyday life for the people temporarily housed there by local authorities.
As reported by Eastlondonlines last year, some British citizens waiting for council housing are being placed in buildings that are “a kind of prison.” Many of these rooms cost councils upwards of £1200 a month and do not even provide humane living conditions.
A huge Apple iPhone advert was fixed across the windows of the apartments there for nearly four years, blocking the air and sunlight from the people who lived inside. It was finally taken down on Sunday morning, following pressure from campaigners including Hackney North and Stoke Newington Green party parliamentary candidate, Alex Armitage.
The advert was symptomatic of a wider problem, distracting attention away from the crumbling building. Armitage referred to it as “Orwellian Britain in the 21st Century – adverts by multinational companies selling glamorous products that are hiding the brutal reality of urban poverty.”
Mihret Zeratsion, 59, is unemployed due to suffering from asthma, arthritis and diabetes. Originally from Italy, she spent her early years in Eritrea. She volunteers to help homeless people at Ace of Clubs, Clapham, twice a week.
Zeratsion has been living in a tiny one room flat at 600 Kingsland Road for almost three years. She said: “You are [supposed to be] safe in this country but you are not, this is worse, affecting you in a way you don’t expect, in a very vicious way, because of what? Because of the wickedness of some landlord, some council, some politician.”
Previously, Zeratsion was under the care of Lambeth Council, living in so-called temporary housing for 17 years whilst trying to find permanent council accommodation. When she was moved to Dalston in 2017, her case was put back to the very beginning of the list, and she had to start looking again.
“I’m going to start [bidding] in February 2020. At the moment I’m in limbo, nobody helps me. I don’t have a case worker because I went to the council and they told me you have to have been a resident for three years.”
Zeratsion was arrested in her home of Eritrea at the age of 13. A political prisoner, she spent five years in an Ethiopian prison and was tortured for much of it. This led to long lasting mental and physical health issues including loss of full use of the left side of her body.
She came to the UK in 2000 looking for peace; instead she fell into Britain’s housing crisis.
Just two weeks ago Zeratsion had to sleep on the floor of her bathroom for a week. Every time the flats above took a shower, the water came into her bedroom. After two years of this, the ceiling finally gave way. Whilst builders were fixing it, Zeratsion asked to go to the empty flat next door; she was told “no” by the owners of the building, Buckingham Investments, and so she created a bed on the hard floor of her bathroom.
Zeratsion has also had to endure constant crime. She told EastLondonLines about her door being broken and her phone and clothes stolen, and told of other flats having their doors knocked off the hinges and everything being stolen.
Zeratsion said she is glad she doesn’t have children or a family to put through this.
“There’s a husband and wife, he’s five, the boy, they’re suffering because of the bedbugs and they don’t speak English. When I try to speak to her because she is cleaning here, I say don’t worry, go to the council”, she said.
Armitage told Eastlondonlines about at least three other cases of terrible living conditions within the building, and slow, sub-standard responses by the owners, Buckingham Investments.
But councils know about the building, having received complaints from the residents. Zeratsion mentioned at least two other buildings she knows of in similar situations where councils have housed people in private buildings with terrible conditions.
A Hackney council spokesperson told Eastlondonlines: “We have not used this property for homeless families since 2015, before the [iPhone] adverts were installed. We are now investigating the conditions inside the buildings, and will not hesitate to serve notices on the landlord if the homes here fail to meet the standards that we expect and the residents deserve.”
Whilst Hackney may not be housing people in 600 Kingsland Road any longer, other local authorities are still doing so.
London Renters Union said: “We stand in full solidarity with the tenants of 600 Kingsland Road, Dalston and will organise with any tenants who want to fight for decent conditions and affordable rents.”
Buckingham Investments who own several properties including 600 Kingsland Road, could not be reached for comment.
“I’m in England, I’m in Britain,” said Zeratsion. “But what for? What for? To end your life in a worse way. It’s really sad you know? This is a jungle now, human jungle, human savannah, with dirty stuff, and wickedness.”
There are 17 rooms in 600 Kingsland Road, many with their own problems like Mihret’s. Many people now feel as though London Councils have abandoned them.