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Kwajo Tweneboa
via Twitter (@KwajoHousing)

Kwajo Tweneboa is fighting Britain’s social slumlords – and winning

The social housing campaigner talks to Dazed about his father, social tenant stereotypes, and the power of hope

Back in 2017, while doing his A-Levels, Kwajo Tweneboa was living in a converted car garage in Merton. “It still had the garage door on it,” he says, speaking to Dazed. “There was mould, damp, an infestation of ants. It was completely falling apart.”

Tweneboa and his family were eventually moved into a flat on the Eastfields Estate in Mitcham, South London. While living there, his father was diagnosed with oesophagal cancer, which rapidly progressed. Bedbound and gravely ill, he received medical treatment in a house that was barely habitable. “The ceiling was missing. It had damp, mould, mice, cockroaches. I couldn’t use the kitchen or the bathroom,” Tweneboa recalls. “These conditions would have been completely unacceptable for anyone, even a healthy individual. Not even animals should be in that condition, never mind a human being.”

Seeing his father grapple with illness while living in such squalid conditions ignited something in Tweneboa. “It spurred me on,” he explains. Desperate to do something, Tweneboa went around his whole estate – which comprised of over 450 homes – posting letters through his neighbours’ doors, asking for them to send him pictures and details of their living conditions. He was soon flooded with messages: “My phone didn’t stop for a good few weeks,” he remembers. “Some people had been suffering on this estate for many years. One person had been complaining for 27 years and nothing was ever done.”

“Ever since, I’ve gone from estate to estate across the country doing the same thing, trying to get justice for social housing tenants and also hold housing associations and councils accountable for their tenants.”

What kinds of issues has Tweneboa come across? “Oh, I mean, the list goes on,” he says. “Mould, damp, cockroaches, mice, rats. Asbestos. Burst hot water pipes, burst central heating, gas pipes that have been drilled through. People having to duct tape windows shut in winter to stop drafts from coming in... There was one elderly lady – she was about 95 – who had to bathe in her toilet sink downstairs because she didn’t have shower or bath facilities.”

These stories are disturbing, but unsurprising. By now, millions of people have seen these kinds of issues documented on Tweneboa’s Twitter. One viral thread shows a home for a mother and three children which is overrun with cockroaches and black mould. Another tweet shows a dilapidated, leaking ceiling in a child’s bedroom.

His videos have even reached the likes of Dragon’s Den mogul Steven Barlett – who has offered Tweneboa £10,000, free recording equipment and mentorship – and political figures like Michael Gove and Sadiq Khan. Most importantly, his tireless campaigning has had a tangible positive impact on social tenants and he’s succeeded in moving people out of uninhabitable homes. “I've had so much support. It's got far and wide,” Tweneboa says. “Loads of people are now talking about it and empathising with some of the conditions that others are being forced to live in against their will while also having to pay rent.”

Tweneboa suggests that it’s a lack of empathy from the people in power which is allowing these appalling conditions to proliferate in the first place. “At a senior level, these people that work for housing associations, corporations, and the government don't know what it's like to be a social housing tenant,” he says. “It's just them not being able to relate. There’s a stigma surrounding social housing tenants, which suggests that they’re scroungers, or they don’t contribute anything, or they just take, take, take and do nothing, when that couldn't be further from the truth.”

“I've met social housing tenants that are professionals, that work hard,” Tweneboa continues. “Yes, some do claim benefits. Yes, some are very, very vulnerable. But it’s a mixture of different types of people – there’s this umbrella that they’re forced under. People have this idea of what ‘a social housing tenant’ is, which is wrong. And even so, they’re still human beings. I would hope that people would use their morals in situations like this and stand by someone suffering and say ‘this is wrong.’”

“There’s a stigma surrounding social housing tenants, which suggests that they’re scroungers... that couldn't be further from the truth” – Kwajo Tweneboa

It’s easy to see why The Times recently dubbed 23-year-old Tweneboa “the Marcus Rashford of terrible flats”. He joins a growing number of powerful Gen Z campaigners who are, frankly, getting shit done. “I hope this inspires the younger generation to know that their voices can be heard and they shouldn’t underestimate the power they have as individuals.”

He says it’s a “shame” that young people have to go to such extreme lengths to campaign for such basic living standards, but he adds that the power of youth activism is something worth celebrating. “It fills me with hope,” he says. “Seeing the younger generation take the lead on fixing social issues should give us hope.”

What’s next for Tweneboa? First up: graduating from the University of Leicester. Then the plan is to continue with his activism work. “I'm hoping to be able to pick up the attention of Boris Johnson and the most senior individuals. I hope it will reach that level and that I'll be able to contribute and make sure tenants get what it is that they actually need, and not what ministers think they need. Because, at the end of the day, it's tenants that will be on the receiving end of any decisions made,” he says. “I'm going to keep this going.”