The Death of Sheila Seleoane: Another Capitalist Housing Scandal

The tragic death of Sheila Seleoane tells us a lot about modern capitalism. Sheila was a medical secretary who lived alone in a housing association flat. She was an agency worker, so when she died, sometime in 2019, she wasn’t missed at work. In fact the only people who realised something was wrong were her neighbours. One of them recalls being alarmed by the ‘strong smell of death.’ When they contacted their landlord, the Peabody Trust, they were ignored. When maggots started coming through the light fittings of the flat below, they were ignored again. When Peabody realised Sheila hadn’t paid her rent, instead of checking on her, they applied for housing benefit on her behalf. And when, almost a year after Sheila had last been seen, gas engineers couldn’t get access to do a safety check, they cut off her gas supply. Sheila’s body lay undetected for two and a half years. Her neighbours, ignored at every turn, remain traumatised.

The Roots of Today’s Housing Crisis

Michael Gove, the ‘Levelling up’ Tsar, immediately criticised the Cameron coalition government’s cuts (neatly sidestepping the fact he was part of that government in 2010). He also took aim at Peabody’s target-driven values as part of a ‘wider culture of neglect.’ He’s partly right, but in fact Sheila’s landlord, Peabody, was set up in 1862 by George Peabody, an American philanthropist, to provide decent housing for London’s workers. Peabody has prided itself since on its social conscience. So, what went wrong?

Sheila’s landlord initially was a small London housing association. Her neighbours describe how they knew their housing officer and who to contact in an emergency. But since 2010, that model of small-scale local housing associations has changed. To pay for propping up the banking system after the meltdown of 2008, the coalition government introduced swingeing cuts in funding, slashing the budget for affordable housing by 60%. Funding for new builds in social housing was stopped altogether. So Housing Associations had to figure a way to generate income to build new homes. They did it by cross subsidy, by building homes for sale on the private market, then using the proceeds to build new homes for the social sector. Over four years they’d managed to build 20,000 social rented homes with this method. But they had, ironically, to borrow from banks. And that meant they had to shift from being just a landlord to being a viable, competitive business. The bigger they could become, the better chance of loans from the banks. Peabody isn’t alone in turning into a mega corporation. The larger housing associations have been swallowing up the smaller, locally based ones for over a decade now. And to deal with all the properties they manage, they’ve developed centralised systems with call centres. In the past a housing officer might have a patch of 200 properties that they’d walk around, dealing with whatever problems arose. Now housing managers are dealing with 1,000 people a time. Which is why, when Sheila’s neighbours rang to raise the alarm that something was very wrong, they were told: ‘we don’t deal with smells’.

Tragedies like Sheila’s, let alone horrendous disasters like Grenfell(1), don’t come out of nowhere. They happen because of decades of attacks on the social wage and workers’ living standards. Social housing especially has been deliberately destroyed by successive governments over the past 40 years. The Right to Buy (RTB) was Thatcher’s big dream of making everyone middle class home owners. The notion that the right to buy would create a property-owning democracy now looks laughable to a nation of renters paying through their teeth for sub-standard, insecure accommodation. Because RTB rules meant that councils couldn’t keep the sales money to build new stock, less than 5% of the homes sold off have been replaced. The total number of council homes fell from 5.2 million in 1979 to 1.6 million in 2021. And over the decades those homes have fallen into the hands of private landlords. Nationally the figure is 40.2% but in some parts of the country it’s well over half. Far from creating a nation of home owners, RTB has created a new set of extremely wealthy private landlords. The council stock that’s left is bitterly fought for by growing numbers on the housing list, but it’s also the worst of the stock that’s left after everything else has been snapped up. Councils are struggling with unpopular stock that’s increasingly run down and underfunded after decades of cuts.

Rents have rocketed, and with it the housing benefit bill, which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stands at a staggering £22 billion a year, doubled since the 90’s. It's now more than spending on the police, on overseas aid, and it dwarfs the spending of a lot of government departments. So we’re now in a situation where eye-watering amounts of money are going to private landlords who have inflated their rents while providing increasingly sub-standard, barely regulated accommodation. The government’s answer? In 2012 it blamed lazy workshy tenants and introduced a benefits cap, reducing the total amount of benefits a family can claim in a year, and reducing the amount of housing benefit that could be claimed by an individual. So housing benefit no longer covered the cost of the rent. Tenants have to make up the shortfall, and in high rent areas like London that can be up to a quarter of the bill. The notion of ‘encouraging’ people into work of course assumes those who claim benefits don’t work. In fact most workers in low-waged, zero-hours jobs have to claim benefits to make up the wages shortfall. And with inflated rents that leaves them stuck in the benefits system and in a very vicious cycle.

Housing: a human need or capitalist commodity?

Food, clothing and shelter are the fundamental needs of humanity in every epoch. Under capitalism, housing has become a commodity like everything else. Property speculation (which thrives when profits are hard to come by other means) has made it financially impossible for many. The social, health and emotional costs to millions of people desperate for decent housing are the consequences. According to the National Housing Federation, 4.2 million people in England alone are in need of social housing, including 1.3 million children. Some can wait on the list for decades. And if they are lucky enough to get to the top of the list, the accommodation they’re offered is often sub-standard, or worse, dangerous.

In 2020, two year old Awaab Ishak died eight days after his second birthday following ‘chronic exposure’ to black mould in the flat he lived in. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which owned the flat, ignored his parents’ concerns about the mould over a number of years, telling them at one stage to paint over it. His parents described pleading for help for their son right until the day he died. The coroner said Awaab’s death should be a “defining moment” for the UK’s housing sector. It should be, but it won’t, just as Grenfell wasn’t. The death of a child due to substandard housing is as shocking as it is unforgivable. It speaks volumes about the way the poorest and most vulnerable workers and their kids are treated, but this is the reality of much of the housing stock in Britain; run-down, cut to the bone and unfit for purpose.

Of course poor housing isn’t just confined to the social sector. According to Shelter, 1 in 5 renters over both sectors in 2021 said the state of their home was harming their health. Over a quarter were suffering with damp and mould. Since private landlords are far less regulated than councils or housing associations, this figure could be a lot higher.

Over the decades, decent, affordable housing has been promised by successive governments and delivered by none. Housing policies have either been totally ineffectual or have made the problem worse. There isn’t a simple ‘get the Tories out’ solution to this. It’s a systemic problem and goes right to the heart of capitalism itself.

Philanthropists like Peabody in the nineteenth century were so appalled by the slums they tried to fix it. But individual capitalists couldn’t solve the housing problem. Nor can the state. Capitalism has always had a housing crisis. It couldn’t solve it in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries and it’s even less equipped to do it now. It won’t ever meet the fundamental, basic human need of providing a decent home for everyone who needs one, because that won’t turn a profit. Every single one of us is entitled to live somewhere safe that fits our needs. But only a global, classless system producing for human need will be able to provide that for everyone.

Communist Workers’ Organisation


Image: Luc Legay, (CC BY-SA 2.0),

(1) For our analysis of this see

Some other articles on the housing question from

For a Class Analysis of the Housing Question

Homes to Those Who Live in Them!

The Housing Question: An Eternal Riddle for Capitalism

Housing Crisis UK – the Death of the “Property-owning Democracy”

Under Capitalism the Housing Problem Never Goes Away

The Bosses' Response to Being Socially Useless is Social Crisis

Housing is a Basic Need Not a Commodity

Friday, April 14, 2023