Experience: my dream flat became a nightmare

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The day I got the keys to my one-bedroom flat in central Leeds in April 2019 was the proudest moment of my life. I’d spent four years saving a £10,000 deposit from my salary as a marketing and PR executive. I had just become single, and I thought my life would be about going out in Leeds, meeting people and enjoying being in my 20s. Independence.

Becoming a homeowner, at 28, was a huge deal for me and my family. My dad is a retired electrician and my mum is an admin assistant. There’s no family wealth behind me – I saved up on my own, and bought my flat for £102,000 through an affordable housing scheme, designed to help people on low incomes. Under the terms of my agreement, I wasn’t allowed to rent the flat out, or sell it to a cash buyer, but that didn’t seem like a problem at the time.

Six months after moving in, I received a letter from West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue telling me that my roof was covered in dangerous cladding, similar to that used on Grenfell Tower. Further inspection threw up problems with the external brickwork, combustible insulation, timber balconies and possible missing firebreaks.

When I got the letter, I had just bought a new freezer and sofa. I’d thought I’d be in the city centre at weekends, drinking cocktails, but instead I was in my flat, crying, trying to understand fire surveys. Because the building was unsafe, its management hired a waking watch – professionals who stay up all night patrolling a building, checking it’s not on fire. The residents had to pay for it, even though it wasn’t our fault. We had bought the flats in good faith, but it seemed as if the building regulations were being changed retrospectively.

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The cost of the waking watch was £300 a month. That was the same as my mortgage payments, and I didn’t have the money to pay for it. The affordable housing scheme meant that I wasn’t allowed to rent out my flat and move back home with my parents. I was only allowed to sell to another buyer on the same scheme – and who on a low income would buy a flat with sky-high additional charges? I was trapped. My mental health plummeted.

In addition to that charge, I was told to expect a bill to replace the cladding on the roof: although management were able to apply to a government fund established to remove dangerous cladding, the fund isn’t big enough to pay for all the repairs. I also had to pay £1,400 for a new fire alarm system and further bills for the other fire issues. I was responsible for paying to fix my building – not the construction company that built it, or the government who signed off the building regulations at the time, even though it was unsafe.

I did everything in my power to avoid going bankrupt. I watched my bank account drain to pennies. I tried to be optimistic, telling myself we’d get the money from the government fund soon. But I just could not afford to keep meeting the monthly payments. I ran out of money and time. Last month, I declared bankruptcy.

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On 17 December, I handed in my keys to be repossessed. The same day, the government announced a new fund to cover waking watch charges. It felt like a slap in the face. I’ve since moved in with my dad.

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I fear my bankruptcy means that I will never be financially independent. I can’t have a normal bank account right now, and I’d struggle to get a loan to buy a car. Plus you have to pay to be declared bankrupt: £6,000 to the government insolvency service, an admin fee of £1,990 and a £680 application fee, which I had to borrow from my dad.

I know I’m not alone: it’s estimated that 700,000 people are living in flats with flammable cladding, and many of them will have to pay to fix those buildings themselves, without government funding.

Still, I’m not coping well. I feel powerless and stupid. There are days when I just can’t see a way out of this mess. I’m not surprised the UK Action Cladding Group found that 23% of people with cladding issues have reported feeling suicidal or having thoughts about self-harm.

My dream flat has ruined my life. It makes all that time I spent saving money in my early 20s seem totally pointless. The future looks bleak.

As told to Sirin Kale

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