Richmond House fire: ‘I’m paying thousands on a mortgage for a home which burnt down three years ago’
Three years after they lost their homes in the fire at Richmond House, former residents are still living a “nightmare” as they remain in temporary housing and continue to pay mortgages for flats which burnt down.
In the early hours of the morning, Agnes Jones* awoke to a loud banging on her door.
Initially, she thought it may be a dream - or kids playing a prank. But when the knocking continued, she stumbled out of her bedroom and opened her flat’s front door to find a panicked neighbour staring back at her.
That’s when Agnes learnt that the building was on fire.
The next moments are a blur. Finding her cat, waking other neighbours, fleeing the burning block of flats. What stands out most to Agnes is gathering with her neighbours on a hill that overlooked the building as they “watched their homes go up in flames.”
It was during this time that fellow resident Jennifer Frame, who was staying a few miles away with her sister, received a text from Agnes. It was the first thing she read when she woke up and is a message she will never forget. “There’s no easy way to say this, but Richmond House has burnt down.”
What happened at Richmond House?
This happened nearly three and a half years ago. On 9 September, 2019, four-storey flat block Richmond House, situated in south-west London, set alight. Like Grenfell Tower, the building was fitted with defective cavity barriers - a safety feature that is supposed to stop fire and smoke spreading through walls. So despite firefighters arriving on the scene within minutes, nothing could be done.
Miraculously, and probably due to the residents’ decision to ignore the building’s ‘stay-put’ policy, no one was hurt or killed in the devastating fire. But everyone lost their home - and despite it being years since the blaze, the “living nightmare” continues for many.
Jennifer and Agnes tell NationalWorld that it feels as though “the trauma” of the fire “has been prolonged” by what has happened in the aftermath of the tragedy. One such example is the fact that they still have to pay their mortgages for homes which no longer exist.
Jennifer explains: “It makes me feel completely trapped. Fortunately, we’re not losing out financially because the building’s insurance is covering the cost of our current rental homes. But it means the trauma continues because you’re tied to a place which has such terrifying memories.”
For Agnes, the situation has worsened in recent months because her five-year fixed mortgage came to an end. “Obviously, this is the worst time for it to happen,” she says. “But because there is no house I can’t change providers. So I’m paying thousands more for a flat that turned to ash years ago.”
Unfortunately, the housing woes don’t end there. Both Jennifer and Agnes, like the majority of their neighbours, are also still living in temporary accommodation - which of course “feels far from a home”.
“It feels like your life is in limbo,” Jennifer comments. “We’ve constantly been told ‘six months more, six months more’, and then our homes will be rebuilt. But it’s been nearly three and a half years. So how much longer can you put things on hold? How much of your life is it okay to lose?”
Agnes adds that even getting to the point of having temporary accommodation was a battle. In the first months following the fire, many residents stayed with family and friends - but those who couldn’t do so for one reason or another ended up in budget hotels.
“One of the hotels actually made me ill because the food quality was so awful,” Agnes recalls. “And I struggled mentally because you just want to feel like you’re in your own space. Like you can go home. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for families with children and babies, crammed into those tiny hotel rooms.”
“What made it worse,” Agnes continues, “is that we got no real help from the government - or from the housing association [Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing]. So you’re in a situation where everything in your life has already crumbled, and you’re trying to use the energy you have left to work, or look after your family, or just get through the day.
“But instead you have to search for accommodation. You have to do the admin. I know people who ended up in housing they don’t like just because they had had enough. They were too tired to do more.”
Jennifer adds: “I felt like an adult was going to turn up at any minute and take control - an MP, a police officer, the fire service, someone from the housing association. But no one did. Instead, we had to fight for everything ourselves.”
So they fought for those whose flats were still accessible to get the chance to re-enter the building. They fought for real answers from the housing association, rather than “carefully crafted, defensive” ones. And they fought for a meeting with the then-housing safety minister Lord Greenhalgh - something which took two years to achieve.
“There was this fear,” Jennifer explains, “that information was going to be hidden from us - like in Grenfell. We don’t want someone to have to die for the findings to be revealed in an inquiry. We want to learn the lessons now so nothing like this happens to families ever again.”
Currently, most of the former residents of Richmond House are waiting to see if their homes do get rebuilt - and trying to decide if they even want to move back in. “It’s a tough decision,” Jennifer says. “Because part of me still feels like it’s my home, and I want to keep my home. Also, with house prices soaring, I’m scared I’ll never own a home again if I don’t stick with this one.
“But at the same time, the longer it takes, the more I can’t imagine going back to that community.”
She adds that the memory imprinted in her brain is that of when she first returned to her flat to see it covered in debris - and completely unrecognisable. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like walking onto a film set... but it was your home. My things just weren’t there anymore.”
Something that the residents managed to negotiate is the option of reselling their property back to Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing before the building is rebuilt. Initially, they were offered a price 10% lower than the value of the flats - but managed to raise it. “You think no one is going to take advantage of you in that position,” Agnes says, “but they do.”
Through their experience, Agnes and Jennifer have met others struggling with housing issues.
“It’s made me lose faith in the housing sector to be honest,” Agnes says, “because you hear stories all the time. Stories of people who tell their building managers that the smoke alarm isn’t working - then there’s a fire after they failed to do anything. They don’t care. It’s demoralising.”
Jennifer adds: “It shouldn’t be so difficult to access justice for something that feels so blatantly wrong. There’s no getting away from the fact that we all could have lost our lives. Changes need to be happen. We shouldn’t have to still be fighting for housing safety.
“I think that the government, the housing association, whoever - they think if they drag this out long enough then we’ll give up. But we won’t. Because I have to believe our homes mattered. Because they did. So we’ll keep fighting.”
A spokesperson for Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing told NationalWorld: “As a charitable housing association our priority is the wellbeing of our residents. We have established a dedicated team to look after the Richmond House residents displaced by the fire and we will continue to house and support them until their homes are rebuilt.”
The housing association added that rebuilding of the property is underway, with construction expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2024. It also said it has “sought to involve residents in the process wherever possible” so that they can see “evidence at each stage of construction that all fire safety standards are being met.”
“For those residents wishing to move on rather than return,” the spokesperson continued, “a full and fair buy-back scheme has been offered that allows residents to sell their share of their flats back to MTVH at a price set by independent valuation companies. This offer was updated earlier this year to match market-conditions.”
*This person’s name has been changed to protect their identity.
Condemned: Britain’s Housing Crisis
The NationalWorld team is investigating the housing crisis blighting Britain, and you can read more of our stories here. The current plight is years in the making, from renters stuck in mouldy homes to families unable to afford cladding repairs to make their flats safe. You can read more of our stories on the housing crisis here and if you have a story to tell email [email protected].