‘Are you not worried we might die?’ Social housing tenants on living with mould

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Nicola Calvert and her five-year-old son, Tristan, have lived with damp in a basement flat in Hastings for three years. The mould spreads across walls and ceilings, and weevils that feed off moist plaster fall into their beds, she tells the Guardian.

There are rats, too, but it’s the damp that scares Calvert, because it worsens her son’s asthma.

“At night time he has coughed and been sick in his bedroom where the damp is the worst,” she said. “He says: ‘Is the damp making me sick?’” Her GP thinks it is.

Tristan’s not happy either: “When I put something on the floor in my bedroom it gets green mould on it.”

Calvert’s family is one of an estimated 120,000 households living in social housing in England that has problems with condensation and mould, according to official figures. That’s three times the proportion of privately owned homes. Around 176,000 private renting households are also living with mould. The problem may be about to get worse if householders respond to energy price rises by turning heating off this winter and closing doors and windows.

The health impact of mould is well understood. The NHS advises that mould can produce allergens, irritants and toxic substances, and can trigger asthma attacks. Now an inquest has found long term exposure to black mould was responsible for a respiratory condition that killed two year old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale. Complaints to the landlord were not followed up and the coroner Joanne Kearsley said the boy’s death must be a “defining moment for the housing sector”.

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Tenants who find the fungus in their homes often struggle to get their landlords to do anything about it. Such is the concern that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is encouraging doctors to ask about a family’s living situation when reviewing a child with a respiratory condition “as this is now a crucial issue for child health”.

What is black mould and what health problems can it cause?Read more

“I thought [the Ishak case] was absolutely tragic,” said Calvert, adding that she has also “felt ignored” in her attempts to be rehoused. “I worried about my little boy [when I read about it].

“Our bedroom stinks of damp; the walls are covered with it,” she said, adding that she had asked the housing authorities: “Are you not worried that we might die?”

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An acute shortage of social housing is one reason why landlords cannot move people to safer homes. There are 1.2m households on social housing waiting lists in England, while only 6,051 new homes for social rent were built last year, according to analysis of government data by the housing charity Shelter. Cuts to social housing funding and the cost of dealing with urgent fire safety works after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire have also squeezed budgets, says the MP Clive Betts, chair of the Commons levelling up, housing and communities committee.

But many landlords are bad at dealing with the problem, according to the housing ombudsman, which resolves tenant/landlord disputes. When it examined the handling of 410 mould and damp complaints it found maladministration in more than half of the cases. Tenants said they “were not being heard or that their landlords were not taking their repair reports or complaints seriously”.

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Richard Blakeway, the housing ombudsman, said in that 2021 report: “You can see the distress, disruption, even embarrassment, felt by the resident. You can see the evident concern about their health and wellbeing, especially mental health; the impact on any children.”

Mould can contribute to a home being classed by the government as having a category one hazard – that is where the most serious harm outcome has been identified, such as death, permanent paralysis, permanent loss of consciousness, loss of a limb or serious fractures. It is not an unusual rating. In 2020, 9% of England’s housing stock was labelled this way.

Shelter’s own surveys estimate that 42% of private renters – equivalent to nearly 4.7 million people – have experienced issues with mould in their current property in the last year.

Government plans to tighten the regulation of social housing are much-delayed. A bill initiated after the fire at Grenfell, where tenants’ safety concerns were also found to have been ignored, is still passing through parliament. It will allow the social housing regulator to proactively inspect housing, take action on less serious cases and levy larger fines.

“For too long, too many social housing tenants have been forced to live in dangerous conditions in homes riddled with mould, with their complaints going unheard and unanswered,” said Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter. “The government promised it would bring in reforms and make sure social landlords are properly held to account. The long overdue social housing regulation bill is a vital opportunity to make sure tenants are listened to, their homes are fit to live in and a tragedy like this never happens again.”

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A spokesperson for Optivo, Calvert’s social housing landlord, said: “Our residents’ needs are extremely important to us and we’ve been working closely with Ms Calvert to resolve the issue of damp and mould in her home.

“Our team are here to support Ms Calvert and will be monitoring the effectiveness of the measures we’ve taken.

We’re happy to work with Ms Calvert and the local authority to look at alternative housing options for her family.

“The request to move is managed by the local authority and we understand they’ve recently categorised Ms Calvert as a higher priority.”

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