A family business running homeless bed and breakfasts (B&Bs) and hostels in Edinburgh that have attracted repeated complaints has been paid more than £15 million by the city council over the last five years, The Ferret can reveal.
The Akbar Mir family, who own the Cameron Guest House Group, runs a string of B&Bs across the city. Under a contract with the City of Edinburgh Council to provide temporary accommodation to homeless men, women and children, the business was paid £15.1m from 2012 to 2017.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds were also paid out by the local authority for other properties the family oversees, including £359,000 for the Abbots House Hotel in 2016-17 alone.
The hostel accommodation provided by the Akbar family has been described by residents and campaigners as “horrible”, “filthy” and “unsafe”. Yet council payments to the family property company have been gradually rising, climbing 40 per cent from 2012-13 to £3.6m in 2016-17.
Guest houses run by Khwaja and Sabira Akbar Mir – and paid for by Edinburgh council – are understood to include the isolated Almond House Lodge in Silverknowes on the edge of the city.
A manager confirmed that the hostel is run by the Cameron Guest House Group, with accommodation provided on behalf of Edinburgh City Council. Title deeds show Khwaja and Sabira Akbar Mir – now the directors of K&S Mir, which runs the Cameron House Hotel Group – are the current proprietors of the building.
Recent residents told The Ferret that some rooms at the Almond House Lodge were dirty with stained bedding, mattresses and curtains. They alleged that some rooms were infested with bed bugs and provided photos of one room where plasterboard appeared to be crumbling away from the wall. Two couples complained that cooking facilities amounted to a solitary microwave, and one about a strict 11pm curfew.
The isolated hotel, where families with three children, pregnant women and disabled people have been placed in recent months, is half a mile from the nearest bus stop down a quiet road, flanked on one side by woodland.
Isolated and cut off
Title deeds also reveal that the Abbots House Hotel in Leith is currently registered to Khwaja and Sabira Akbar Mir, though the couple are in the process of transferring ownership deed to their company, K&S Mir. Residents have described it as filthy and “unfit for human habitation” with no cooking or laundry facilities. In January residents staged protests outside the hostel.
The Ferret was shown pictures of dirty shared bathrooms and bedrooms. One mother claimed she had found a pair of dirty knickers stuffed down her bed on arrival. Another said she refused to stay there because of the conditions.
Other properties in their portfolio include a hostel in Hopetoun Crescent – formerly known to residents as Cameron Guest House – which is now providing so-called “rapid access” beds for rough sleepers. Khwaja Akbar Mir holds a current HMO licence for the property.
One previous resident claimed he moved out after a month in 2016 and opted to sofa surf with friends instead due to the poor conditions and frightening atmosphere. “The conditions were horrible,” he told The Ferret. “It was really shocking.”
The family, which also has a high end hotel in York Place, has said it is moving away from running homeless hostels. In 2011 they bought a former Scotsman newspaper building off Cockburn Street from Edinburgh City Council for £1.35 million. But the family income from providing temporary accommodation to the council has continued to increase.
The Akbar Mirs live near the Almond House Lodge in Silverknowes, in a restored mansion from the same period with their name engraved on the gate. They have displayed their wealth – including expensive family weddings, diamond encrusted watches and cars with personalised number plates – on social media.
One couple, currently staying at Almond House Lodge, said they had heard some residents complaining about bed bugs. The man, who didn’t want to give his name, said: “A lassie was in the council last week because there were bed bugs. She’d been bitten.”
He added: “There is a woman in there in a wheelchair. Her son is having to push her up that road twice a day. There are kids in there. The microwave is the only thing you can cook with and it is disgusting. You can’t even go out for a smoke after 11pm at night. I went down to reception and they told me: “you can’t be here”. But if I smoke in my room I’ll get kicked out.”
His partner said: “We brought our own cleaning stuff and cleaned our room. The housekeeper was going around changing some of the beds. I asked for clean bedding and I was told there was none left. I’d have to wait to the morning.”
Rachel Gardener, a mother-of-two, who was homeless for 18 months in Edinburgh after her landlord sold the flat she was living in, said she was offered a place in the Abbots House Hotel after spending several days in other B&Bs and hotels.
“The council tried to put me into Abbots House Hotel but I had already heard the horror stories,” she said. “I wouldn’t even put my dog in there. I ran out of the office crying.” Eventually she secured a private sector lease instead.
Antonio Bianchi (not his real name), who stayed in the Cameron Guest House in Hopetoun Crescent for a month in August 2016, said: “The dirt and the smell in the room made it difficult to breath. The carpets and the sheets were dirty and I preferred to sleep in my own sleeping bag on top of the bed.”
He added: “The window didn’t open and I complained about that. Someone did come to fix it was three or four days later. The heating was on constantly and it was centralised. Every day I would spend £3 to buy a spray at the nearby shop to try to cover the smell.”
Pauline Bowie, of Muirhouse-based charity Low Income Families Together (Lift), said it had worked with almost 100 families who had found themselves in B&B after becoming homelessness due to the benefit cap. The benefit cap, which means families and single parents with children can claim no more than £384.62 per week was introduced by the UK government in January 2017.
The majority of those Lift has worked with have been placed in Almond House Lodge and Abbots House Hotel, sometimes for weeks, with families sharing double beds in allegedly damp and dirty rooms.
Bowie has been helping women to stage protests and arranging meeting with councillors and other politicians. The amount of money spent on properties owned by the Akbar Mirs was “truly shocking”, she said.
“Without a doubt these figures coming out mean the council should look again at its contracts,” she said. “How can they justify that kind of money for this disgusting property? We’ve got kids and adults coming in who have been bitten by bed bugs, who are struggling to cope. We are not looking for much but we are looking for people to be granted their human rights.”
Without a doubt these figures coming out mean the council should look again at its contracts. Pauline Bowie, Lift
Alex Cole-Hamilton, Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western sees constituents every week in substandard homeless accommodation. “The revelation that so many people who are homeless are being housed in slum-like conditions in 2018 is a national outrage,” he said.
“The council has a duty of care to people who often made homeless through no fault of their own.” He claimed the council must ensure it was making “snap inspections under pain of removal of their contract if they are found to be substandard.”
Councillor Kate Campbell, housing and economy convener, insisted that ending B&B was the “absolute goal” but argued that there was no quick fix. In January 2018 the local authority promised to stop using B&Bs for families by June but has so far failed to do so.
“We’re looking into alternatives to B&B alongside plans for rapid rehousing,” she said. “But the biggest issue we face is the shortage of affordable, permanent homes in the city. It’s absolutely not OK for people to be asked to live for a long period of time without access to cooking facilities, food storage or a washing machine.”
She added: “We’ve agreed to change our contracts with providers to make sure that people can cook and wash their clothes. Our officers regularly inspect all of the accommodation we use. If anyone has any issues about the standard of accommodation they are living in I would ask that they contact our temporary accommodation service so that we can fully investigate any complaints.”
After repeated attempts to contact the Akbar Mirs, Neil Ellis, area manager for Cameron Guest House Group, said that no-one was available for comment.
Property title deeds
This article was amended on 31 August 2018 to say that the Akbar Mirs bought the Scotsman building off Cockburn Street in 2011, not the building on North Bridge.
Photos thanks to Angela Caitlin.