A fire safety expert has described an illegal hostel in east London as a “potential death trap” following a BBC London investigation.
The hostel is in a former Victorian factory within the well-known artists’ community at Cable Street Studios in Limehouse, east London.
At least 20 sleep in a commercial unit that is “unfit for residential use”.
Serious health and safety concerns were raised over gas canisters for cooking and cramped conditions.
The unit was mainly being used by migrants from Bangladesh who BBC London was told were paying up to £10 a night.
One man who wished to remain anonymous said he did not like living there, but felt he had no choice – as he had no job and the council could not provide him with accommodation.
After viewing footage of the hostel, Arnold Tarling, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), said: “People trying to escape wouldn’t be able to get past each other and therefore they would become trapped within the building very quickly.
“It is a potential death trap. The building is overcrowded and the fire precautions are near nil.”
A former tenant, who is a student, initially informed BBC London a significant number of the 180-plus work studios at the warehouse were being lived in.
She said tenants were paying between £500 and £1,000 per month – and there was no heating, no kitchen facilities, no toilets inside the rooms and no running water.
“The building is divided into different wings with gated doors. It’s just like a prison,” said the ex-tenant.
This is a breach of planning and building regulations as the owner, Sudbury Properties Limited, only has permission to rent out units on a strictly commercial basis.
The owner said a buildings manager, David Green, who has an office on site, and a letting agent, Danny Gaska, were contracted to look after the day-to-day business of Cable Street Studios.
‘Not bad location’
It is home to a bar, nightclub, dance studios, several cab firms and even a mosque.
Artists, photographers, dancers and small businesses also rent out units.
Undercover researchers revealed the agent Mr Gaska was actively showing potential tenants around the units as spaces to live in.
He admitted the rooms had no central heating or facilities and only one communal shower and several toilets per floor in the four-storey building.
“It’s still cheaper than normal flats,” he said. “And the location is not bad. It’s pretty central. Generally it gets really cold in winter. That’s something you have to get used to.”
Mr Gaska was also secretly filmed coaching BBC researchers on how to avoid housing inspectors if they came round to check on the units.
Peter Bolton King, Global Residential Director at the RICS, said there was no way anyone should be living in the warehouse.
He said: “You have a situation where it appears you have people who are desperate to have a roof over their heads agreeing to sign a commercial lease when they’re going to use it for residential purposes.
“There could well be health and safety issues here.”
Mr Gaska did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Buildings manager Mr Green, told the BBC no-one was living on the premises and he was not involved in letting out any units.
In a statement, Sudbury Properties Ltd said the lettings were handled by a third party.
“Sudbury in no way should be implicated as complicit with any wrongdoings alleged to have taken place”, they said.
“Agents will be attending the property to investigate whether any of the units are being used for residential purposes and appropriate action to rectify any breaches will be taken.”
In terms of the illegal hostel, the landlord said the tenant had been approached and confirmed he was in breach of the commercial lease and therefore the contract would be terminated.
A spokesman for Tower Hamlets Council said: “In recent years we have worked with the police, local residents and businesses within the premises to resolve the most serious breaches relating to anti-social issues associated with these units.
“We are aware that some units whilst being leased as business units have or are being used for residential purposes.
“We will continue to investigate these breaches and take appropriate action when it is considered expedient to do so.”