It’s probably not the budgie

Katie (not her real name) put out a desperate plea on her community Facebook page, the battle cry of a mother at the end of her tether. A tenant of one of the region’s largest housing associations, she was living on the ground floor of a newly built block of flats in the ward I had represented for just a few weeks.

It was 2017 and Katie had lived for 3 years in the two-bedroom ground floor flat with her partner and their two tiny children, one 3 years old and the other a fragile 3 month old newborn who’d been born prematurely. The baby had had multiple trips to hospital with bronchitis in his very short life, and multiple courses of antibiotics.

Katie was convinced that the source of her baby’s health issues was the mould and damp in their flat. Shoes and toys left overnight on the floor went mouldy. The soft furnishings had had to be replaced twice in three years because they were rotting into the damp carpet. Katie spent every day cleaning, bleaching, and washing, and overnight the mould would return to anything left on the ground. Walking across the carpet in socks led to wet socks.

Katie’s mental health was suffering badly. She was cleaning all day, wiping down surfaces obsessively, but still failing to keep her children safe and healthy. She could get nobody who ought to have cared to take any interest. She felt judged at every turn. She feared being kicked out by the housing association for complaining too much. She felt as though she had no rights.

For three years, Katie had tried and exhausted every available channel to get someone take interest. She’d been visited at home by representatives from the housing association and the builders of the block of flats. Every single time, the two huge organisations had sent only men to deal with her, at home alone with her tiny children in the daytime. Sometimes up to four men crowded into the flat at once, seemingly sent to downplay the problems.

Each time, they had asked about “lifestyle” issues. Were the family opening the windows? Were they drying washing indoors? Were they turning off the extractor fans in the kitchen and bathroom? Were they boiling a lot of things? Finally they regretfully informed her that the source of the flat’s problems was in fact the family’s budgie throwing water out of his bowl, and they left the family to its damp fate.

The day Katie decided to put up her distress balloon on Facebook, her baby had yet again been bluelighted into hospital with breathing difficulties. Katie had been anxious about losing their tenancy if she made a fuss, as there were thousands of people on the social housing waiting list in our area, but now she felt as though she had no choice but to go public.

By the time I visited, after seeing her plea on social media, the walls had clear evidence of rising damp in the new plasterboard, which was bubbling from the skirting board and two feet up the wall, and the family were living almost entirely in one bedroom, having effectively surrendered the rest of the flat to the mould that grew on every surface. Katie kept a face mask and rubber gloves near the closed door of the living room so she could go in for her daily cleaning session.

I made some enquiries, and talked to my council about the problems with this flat. Other councillors were sympathetic but there seemed to be few avenues open for redress. I insisted on the flat being visited by a buildings expert. When this visit finally took place some weeks later, by a buildings surveyor armed with the correct equipment, the verdict was very final: underneath the block was a burst water mains, which was constantly seeping upwards and into the slab on which the block was built, being soaked up by the plasterboard and floor coverings. The mains may have been broken by a digger during building works above it. For three years, Katie had been fobbed off and effectively told she was responsible, that “tenant activity” that was the cause of the damp.

You might think that the family would have been moved immediately from these surroundings. Not so. With so many people on the housing waiting list, the housing association judged that it could not move Katie and her family out of the flat.

A few weeks later the baby was sick again. This time the hospital was saying it would not release the baby back to the care of his parents, and that he would have to go into care if the family’s living conditions remained unchanged. Katie and her husband decided to move straight back in with her parents- the only way they could guarantee not losing their baby to the care system.

Eventually the family was offered a different house in a different village, just in time for her older child to start school. Katie had by then begun legal action against both the housing association and the developer of the flat for putting her through the trauma of the previous few years. I was happy to put my name down as a witness to what I had seen. Eventually both the housing association and the developers backed down, but they certainly did not make it easy for a young mum of two pre-schoolers to take action, and only grudgingly admitted liability after Katie put expensive independently-commissioned reports before them, and environmental health services were involved.

Katie’s children are now 5 and 8, and both have long term lung problems. The younger one has asthma and is on constant treatment. For them, their early childhood is casting a long shadow. And this is the reality of most children growing up in unfit housing. They are more often sick, leading to more absence from school and poorer long-term health.

We should be viewing this as a national scandal, not demonising young and vulnerable people living in terrible housing stock. Katie says now “I had no other option by that time and as a mother you protect your children and fight the earth to make sure they are safe”. Katie now wants to stand for us for district council and to be an advocate for standards in social housing.

At the time though she took an immensely brave step into the dark, not knowing what would happen, but absolutely knowing that she had no choice. In the wake of the death of little Awaab, we need to remember that some people do not have the capacity for this level of risk, because they have no family around them, maybe do not speak English well, or are more fearful than Katie was by the time she spoke up. It is vitally important that these powerful organisations stop judging people who almost by definition are more vulnerable, and questions need to be asked about why intimidation is seen as an acceptable way to treat tenants.

Epilogue: it is worth noting that the housing association in question immediately placed another family in the flat Katie had vacated to avoid losing her child into care. They also have had chronic damp problems because every bit of ground under the block of flats was saturated.

* Eleanor Rylance is a human, parent, translator, East Devon District councillor, PPC for East Devon and terrible parkrunner

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  • Getting a surveyor out “with the correct equipment” shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. Given the LibDems seem to be focusing on the issue of making rented accommodation fit to live in, perhaps this is a service the party could help fund and thus Eleanor could have provided more timely assistance to Kate.

    In this particular case, there is a question as to why the local authority haven’t, in the face of professional evidence, put a notice on the flat as being unfit for habitation.

  • What an appalling story of complacency and incompetence and discrimination against the poor!

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Nov '22 - 11:56am

    Eleanor – I see from that in 2017 the council was under tory control but is now NOC.

    Which groups are working together on the council?

    Have things got any better regarding conditions in social housing since the appalling episode you described?

  • Mould is a common problem in council flats and I believe that it is usually associated with proper ventilation. This may become more of a problem this winter when people turn off the heating and then switch it on again causing frequent condensation on walls with windows closed.
    This case was a little unusual in having a leaking water main beneath the floor rather than a faulty dampcourse. Few council maintenance workers would have had the necessary skills or equipment to resolve the issues, although a competent builder should be able to spot a rising damp issue quite easily.
    Sadly these kind of issues will be increasingly filling councillors caseloads.

  • Eleanor Rylance 25th Nov '22 - 12:31pm

    The district council was Tory-led for 46 years, went to No Overall Control in 2019, and is now run by an alliance of progressive independents, LibDems and Greens. We are still mopping the legacy of 4 decades of underinvestment, poor maintenance and a lack of focus.

  • Eleanor Rylance 25th Nov '22 - 1:06pm

    It is worth mentioning that the family were doing everything they should have been. A large part of problem with social housing is that much of was built 60 years ago and designed to last about 40 years. Housing managers are trained that householder activity is the main cause of damp in houses, and while that may be true, it also masks the problems when buildings have major defects, because the default position among people who should be able to help is that the fault does not lie with the building. In the case the building was brand new but with an major structural defect that was simply not acknowledged.

  • Barry Lofty 25th Nov '22 - 6:03pm

    What a sad reflection on how so many people have to endure their lives, something is very wrong with this country of ours?

  • Andy Boddington 26th Nov '22 - 9:28am

    I know how bad and depressing this problem can be. My flat is social housing. A decade ago, I had black mould everywhere: windows, bottom of walls, ceiling. My front door was clapped out and absorbed moisture. The temperature dropped to -10C and the door froze in the portal. I had flu (the real stuff, it took me months to recover) and the central heating had broken. Supplies had to be passed through a window. I insisted on a carpenter one midnight because my asthma was severe and I was at the point of calling an ambulance. The door was fixed by a grumpy carpenter as I froze and sweated in front of a pathetic gas fire. The door then didn’t have a lock for three years. But then a miracle happened. The housing association decided to upgrade the flats. New doors and windows. New combi boiler. Cavity wall insulation. New kitchen. No new bathrooms so I cashed in a pension to upgrade that with local workers. It is now dry and warm here and I embarking on redecorating and other works, where possible using rough sleepers to the work I can’t do physically.

  • Andy Boddington 26th Nov '22 - 9:45am

    Fellow councillor and I, Tracey Huffer have been dealing with a lot of these issues in the last few days. Some are long term. Others have got worse with the drop of temperature, closing of doors and windows and inadequate ventilation, including lack of fan/extractors and trickle vents. Some of these properties are old, some are new and award winning (for looks rather than liveability I think). It’s a bigger problem than many people have realised. It is appalling that it has taken the death of child to draw attention of a child to draw attention to it.

  • Andy Boddington 26th Nov '22 - 9:49am

    However, The Mighty Gove’s approach of cutting off funding for registered providers if they are failing is completely wrong. It will punish the housing body but will also punish the residents, many of whom have been punished enough by life.

  • Politicians like Gove just utter meaningless platitudes to placate the public until the problem they are addressing has ceased to be headline news, it is left to others ,with less power ,to try and help the people who find themselves in such distressing situations.

  • Zoe Hollowood 26th Nov '22 - 8:00pm

    Very worrying story. Thank you for sharing. I spoke to my stepdad about this issue, he used to work for the housing association regulator. He mentioned several issues from his experience. One was the poor quality of housing stock housing associations inherit from the council, and they lack the money to repair them. Another is that the trustees of housing associations (which are exempt charities) are often very well meaning but can lack the experience to hold the housing association to account and provide the level of scrutiny required. Another problem is the the housing association regulators cannot audit the housing associations annually. More like every 3 years. So basically lack of money and lack of governance and accountability. Sounds familiar.

  • David Garlick 26th Nov '22 - 10:01pm

    I thought that P|ublic Health dealt with these issues. If not then there has to be a body with authority to enforce action. Landlords can be good but they can be bad. Why are they not responsible to a local authority to ensure fitness for purpose!
    My blood boils!

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