Wednesday, 23 January 2019
A MOTHER of four claims a housing association made her family live in an overcrowded and rundown property for four years.
Gemma Warner, her partner Damien Rawson and children Sandy-Mai, six, Declan, four, Finlay, three and DJ, one, were only moved out of the two-bedroom maisonette in Medill Close, Woodcote, by Soha after she complained to the Henley Standard.
Miss Warner, who grew up in the village, says the first floor flat was falling apart from the moment they moved in because of a persistent damp problem that caused plaster to fall of the walls and gave the children breathing problems.
An intermittent ceiling leak meant that half of the bedroom the children shared was unusable, so Declan and Finlay were sharing a bottom bunk.
Miss Warner, 31, who cannot work due to a degenerative hip condition that forced her to use a walking frame and wheelchair as a child, says Soha would urge her to be patient whenever she complained but nothing was ever done.
The housing association says the damp problem was only reported recently and it had fixed all but one of the outstanding issues.
Miss Warner has been offered a three-bedroom Soha property in Berinsfield, where she used to live but moved away to escape her former partner.
She said: “It’s not ideal but I was so desperate to get out of here that I’ve got no choice.
“This has been going on for four years and I’m so stressed after everything I’ve been through.
“My hair is falling out, I’ve had to go on antidepressants and I’m not eating or sleeping properly.
“I hate the idea of being nearer my ex again but that’s all they’re offering so it’s either that or stay there and continue to suffer.”
As a child, Miss Warner lived with her parents Mervyn and Sandy and brother Ben, now 36, but she was still little when her mother died. She attended Peppard Primary School then Langtree School in Woodcote.
She moved to Berinsfield in 2013 but returned the following year to care for her father, who had dementia and chronic pneumonia and died in 2016.
Miss Warner says water began leaking from the roof soon after she moved in. It would drip from holes in the ceiling and came down the walls. Plaster was regularly falling off the walls and there was a persistent draught.
She would sweep up debris at least once a day and, despite the health risk it posed, was frightened to wipe away mould in case it caused the walls to deteriorate
Cracks would appear periodically around door and window frames and last summer her bedroom window became dislodged. Only two screws prevented it from falling out completely.
The front door and frame were coming loose, having only been replaced a year ago, and the adjacent wood cladding had warped.
The wood panelling around her bathtub had also rotted.
Miss Warner also believes water had infiltrated an electrical socket in the lounge as it would short out appliances with a flash and a bang, leaving scorch marks.
She told the Henley Standard: “Plaster comes off the walls in every room and it feels like I spend most of my life dusting.
“There’s mould everywhere so I ought to be cleaning every day but that tears more plaster off so you just give up. It’s almost not worth cleaning because I’m worried about what will happen.”
In 2016 she ripped up her hall carpet because it was rotting and beneath it was a layer of asbestos-based glue. She didn’t realise this so had been letting her infants crawl over it until a neighbour warned her. She said Soha took a month to remove it.
Miss Warner said: “This has caused my family so many health issues. My youngest is in and out of hospital with breathing problems, one of which nearly killed him.
“I’m losing my marbles because I can’t keep my own children safe and well, which is the one thing you desperately want as a mum.
“If it was just me and my partner I could cope but seeing my children suffer like this is going to break me.
“I didn’t even want to put a Christmas tree up because I keep worrying what would happen if it fell over. I’m losing my will to keep going and don’t know where to turn.
“Soha keep saying they’re doing all they can but I haven’t seen any sign of that.”
Mr Rawson, who began a relationship with Miss Warner in 2016 and moved in last year, said: “Everyone who visits can’t believe the state we’re living in and wants to know why the authorities can’t do something.
“Soha refuse to see the obvious problems because that would mean they had to take action.
“One contractor said he’d seen people living in some terrible conditions but nothing this bad. It looks like a house in a war zone.”
The problems began on a wet afternoon soon after Miss Warner moved in when water began pouring from the children’s bedroom ceiling.
She believed there was a hole in the roof, so Soha sent an engineer but he said he couldn’t check without a ladder.
She later found that items being stored in the loft, including photos of her late mother, were ruined and had to be thrown away.
Miss Warner said: “They weren’t worth much money but the sentimental value was priceless. My kids never had a chance to know mum, so I was keeping those as much for them as for me.”
A year later, a contractor returned and drilled holes in the bedroom ceiling to release a build-up of water which could have brought the ceiling down.
He then plugged the holes but Miss Warner said the roof was never checked.
More recently a plasterer visited on Soha’s behalf and marked several walls for restoration but the family said this was pointless without stopping the leaks. Miss Warner said: “No one has ever checked the roof even though I’m sure that’s behind everything.
“Someone once came out and said it would need a scaffold so I asked for a copy of his report to Soha. He said it would be fine but when I chased it up he said they wouldn’t allow him to share it with me.
“After the very first visit, they only came out again because I kicked off so often that they got bored. One of their advisors even told me the only way to get anything done was to keep ringing but I shouldn’t have had to do that.”
The couple can’t rent privately because neither of them works and few landlords will accept tenants who receive housing benefit.
Miss Warner’s mobility has improved since childhood but she has slipped discs in her spine, while Mr Rawson struggles to find work as he does not drive and can’t afford lessons.
The couple applied for properties through the social housing bidding system in which tenants get “points” based on their level of need but weren’t offered anything suitable. They turned down two properties, one in Wallingford and another in Sonning Common, after being told incorrectly that their housing benefit would only cover a small portion of the rent.
The couple obtained a letter from the Woodcote surgery confirming their living conditions were affecting the family’s health.
Miss Warner said: “I’d honestly rather live in a tent in the woods with a little gas stove.
“ I could probably make a better job of living like that than we do here and wouldn’t have that constant reminder of my dad’s death.
“Sometimes I just sit and cry for ages. It’s too crowded and the kids are outgrowing it more as time passes. It’s so small that it feels cluttered if they even get one box of toys out.
“Soha told me off for putting up a toddler gate in the hallway but Finlay’s always charging about and hurting his head so what else could I do? I find myself telling the children not to do things that would be fine in any normal household. The past few years have been hell because my kids are suffering and I have no idea or control over when it might get fixed.
“It seems so unfair when you’ve got all these pensioners living in three-bedroom houses by themselves — why can’t those properties go to families?
“I’m so angry and upset that words aren’t enough. I wake up every day worrying what could go wrong next. A lot of other people have family to fall back on but we don’t have that so we’re dependent on Soha and it feels like they’re just mugging us off.”
Soha claims the damp issue was only reported two months ago, which Miss Warner disputes, and a contractor had inspected the house for the work to be carried out earlier this month.
Lee Hayward, assistant director of customer service, said a roofer had visited in 2016 and found no signs of damage and what Miss Warner believed were holes were in fact air vents.
He said a structural engineer visited only weeks ago and found no underlying faults so the plaster damage must have been caused by heat fluctuations and the family closing doors and windows too forcefully. He confirmed there had been “low grade” asbestos under the floor but said it was normal for removal to take several weeks.
He said: "Soha has regularly visited Miss Warner since she moved in and carried out repairs. We understand why she feels overlooked but she speaks with many of our staff on a regular basis.
"We visited her in November and December and are aware that the issues will be resolved once a suitable alternative home is found for her and her family."
14 January 2019
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