Illustration by John Watson

Kwajo Tweneboa: ‘Politicians underestimate the impact of housing’

In two years, he has gone from being a business student to one of the UK’s most effective campaigners. Tweneboa tells Prospect what drives him to take on landlords—and the government
May 10, 2023

Kwajo Tweneboa didn’t plan to become Britain’s leading social housing campaigner. Two years ago, he was a business student, living with his father and two sisters in a flat in south London riddled with damp, mice, cockroaches and asbestos. Mould grew on beds, kitchen cabinets were rotten and, at one point, the living room had no ceiling. Repeated requests for help from Clarion, the housing association responsible for the property, were met with silence or obfuscation. Ten months after Tweneboa moved in, his father Kwaku was diagnosed with stage one oesophageal cancer. His deterioration was rapid.

“We thought he’d be fine,” Tweneboa, 24, tells me as we walk to his home from Mitcham station on a grey afternoon. “Stage one, they’ve got it early. That then progressed fast to stage 4. He went from walking around… to vomiting every 10 minutes, couldn’t swallow his own saliva, bedbound.” Nurses who came to care for him were shocked and struggled to work around the dire conditions. Infections were constant. “I have no doubt the conditions he was in made his deterioration worse,” says Tweneboa. “Cockroaches? Mice? Vermin?”

Now, landlords listen to me on behalf of other tenants. They take me very seriously

On the day of his father’s funeral, the ceiling collapsed. Now in his living room, Tweneboa shows me where it caved in. It was the very corner where his father’s sick bed had been just weeks earlier. After another “dismissive” call with Clarion, Tweneboa decided “enough was enough”.

He wrote a heated Twitter post with photos and it soon went viral. He decided to find out if his story was common, so knocked on all 463 doors of his Eastfields estate and “by the time I had done a full loop, I was already receiving messages, texts, videos, emails… and that was constant that weekend, and weeks later”.

Tweneboa had unwittingly uncovered the UK’s dirty housing secret. Shoddy conditions are endemic: mushrooms blooming on ceilings, ankle-high sewage running through corridors, children’s bedrooms swarming with cockroaches, rats. A report last year found at least 4.1m homes in England failed to meet minimum standards: free of dangerous hazards, with modern facilities, in a reasonable state of repair with effective insulation and heating. 

Tweneboa began visiting tenants’ homes and documenting what he found. His videos got millions of views and made national news. Disgraced, Clarion was forced to carry out millions of pounds’ worth of repairs on the Mitcham estate. 

Two years on, the pace has not abated. He’s racked up thousands of social media followers, who regularly message him asking for help. “I’m helping lead the fight when it comes to poor housing in this country. I never expected to have that responsibility,” he tells me. “Now, landlords listen to me on behalf of other tenants, and they take me very, very seriously. And the government is listening. I’m working directly with Michael Gove.”

Tweneboa has been instrumental in the new Social Housing Bill, which will subject landlords to tighter standards and strict timeframes for addressing damage, and aims to redress the power imbalance. “It needs to go further, but we’re heading in the right direction and I’m glad,” he says. “Politicians have really underestimated the impact of housing. It’s fundamental.”

He’s not stopping there. “If you want change, you have to throw yourself in the ring and create that change, and if that means going into politics, into parliament, mayor, I don’t know, then perhaps I have to consider that.” I tell him he’s got my vote.

And his dad is with him every step of the way. “It’s bittersweet. I spoke to my uncle about it recently, and he said, ‘You have to remember none of this would have happened without him dying and in the way that he did’… He’s the reason why.”