The horror of black mould in social housing

Some details in this article have been changed to ensure anonymity and safeguarding.

Last week, I got a message from a young woman with a two year old in a social property built around 1990. Her son had been seriously ill and in hospital with bronchial issues. She had been complaining to the housing managers about black mould for a long while. This case is proving to be the tip of the iceberg.

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale has heightened concerns. Tenants have always known that black mould is dangerous to health but housing associations and councils have too often blamed the issue onto tenants or failed to make it a priority.

Since Rochdale, we have had a steady stream of cases coming in via messenger. A baby not yet two months old and returned home on oxygen into a house riddled with black mould. I can’t publish details or photos but they made me cry.

A decent home is fundamental to health and happiness.

We are getting a positive response from the housing associations. One chief executive, currently away, emailed me in the earlier hours to ask for the priority cases, which we have sent. There are many more.

In life, there are trigger points when those suffering, those who are meant to alleviate suffering and the politicians overseeing suffering suddenly get a wakeup call.

The wakeup call on social housing was when a coroner ruled the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale in 2020 was linked to black mould. The coroner said earlier this month:

“Awaab Ishak died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment. Action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken. His respiratory condition led to respiratory arrest.”

She asked how this could happen in the UK in 2020 (details of the verdict).

How could it happen? It could well happen where I live and where you live.

The blame culture was a major theme in the housing ombudsman’s report into black mould published last year (PDF). This followed a significant number of findings of maladministration against housing associations and councils over black mould during which the tenant was blamed. The ombudsman recommended that “landlords should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould.”

Yet, one housing provider has blamed the problems on a budgie. Eleanor Rylance’s article here on LDV is essential reading.

On Tuesday, the housing ombudsman wrote an open letter to housing associations to remind them of their responsibilities on dealing with black mould and cautioning them not to blame the tenants.

There are an estimated 120,000 households living in social housing in England with problems with condensation and mould, three times the proportion of privately owned homes. Around 176,000 private renting households are also living with mould.

Tenants have been worried for years but the issue has largely been on the backburner for many housing associations and councils. They have taken the view that black mould and other problems will be eliminated when they upgrade properties and it’s up to the tenants to deal with the mould in the meantime.

One of my friends with a one year old child is “bleach bombing” the mould under the stairs as I type this. She doesn’t know how to get rid of the mould in the bathroom which is so extensive it has spread to the outside of the extractor fan.

Mould is a fungus, often several varieties of fungus. Fungi give off spores and it is these that cause reactions among people who have allergies and respiratory conditions. Sometimes skin contact with mould can trigger an allergic reaction. Not all people are affected but prolonged expose to mould is believed to detrimental to health, though the issue seems not have been well studied by medical researchers.

I am a unitary councillor and when a safeguarding case comes in, I react immediately. Sometimes this is in another councillor’s ward but safeguarding is the overriding principle. Once someone has trusted you enough to message you, you have to get on with it. There is physical geography and there is social geography. Social geography knows no bounds. Neither does safeguarding which is every councillor’s first priority. This occasionally means we tread on other councillor’s toes but non-one wants a child to die.

We are getting a very positive response from the housing associations on the cases we have highlighted so far.

But why, oh why does it take a death of two year old in a mould ridden property and a letter from the ombudsman to get action?

Despite the government’s boasts, there has been a chronic underinvestment in social and council housing. So much has been sold without replacement. So many properties have been allowed to decay to the point where they become too expensive to refurbish and are sold off.

On a spreadsheet, that’s about managing the property portfolio and budgets. In the houses and flats, it’s about living in miserable conditions when there are no other options for people to live.

It is time that the requirement for good social housing is as big a political priority as enabling those that can afford it to buy their own homes.

A decent home is fundamental to health and happiness. I don’t know why we have got it so wrong in this country.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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3 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Dec '22 - 7:59am

    Restricting heating wont help. Black mould has been a culture in the many years of social housing. The lack of repairs, housing that was not that great to start with. Turnover more important than quality.

    The Social Housing system is broken. So many things are just broken.

  • There is the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 which came fully into effect in March 2020…

    Looking at the guidance, it would seem that a tenant needs to both initiate legal action and correctly follow a sequence of steps to benefit from the various protections and for the courts to rule. However, I note whilst it seeks to diminish the role of the local authority, the LA can act in an advisory capacity and so can initiate a Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) assessment.

    Hence given the recent case, I suggest as a Councillor you do need to be pushing for the Council to become more proactive in supporting tenants – yes this might mean some tenants making changes to their lifestyles so as to reduce the problem (ie. the cause is lifestyle and not building), but in general it should result in tenants building a solid evidence trail and case that a solicitor (Council introduced/provided?) can take to court. Ie. put in place the support and enabling structure that will enable the most vulnerable to exercise their legal rights.

  • Neil Sandison 2nd Dec '22 - 1:27pm

    Whilst much has been made of the fact that social/ housing association property was involved in this recent case. Councils can also be remiss in carrying out urgent repairs or installing adequate ventilation to properties.
    One worrying factor is the very high turnover of qualified housing staff both in terms of tenancy advice and property management skills. introductory tenancies added to the mix means tenants /residents feel reluctant to report or complain about poor or inadequate work. We should remember Grenfell no one listened properly to the residents of that ill-fated block of social housing.

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