Dec 2nd 2022, 15:20
Blog - 2nd December 2022
In this blog I consider the shocking death of two-year old Awaab Ishak that was caused by the damp conditions in his housing association flat and the implications for the social housing sector.
The main facts of the case are well known, having featured prominently in the national news as well as in social housing media. Awaab lived with his parents in a social flat rented from housing association Rochdale Boroughwide Homes (RBH). He died in 2020 aged two because of the mould in his flat. His inquest concluded in November 2022.
Prior to the inquest, RBH said there was mould in the property, but the tenants had caused it with their lifestyle. They said that his family should have taken action to control the damp and mould but failed to do so.The inquest found that this was not an accurate account of what happened.
In conceding that they bore some responsibility for the mould, RBH provided the court with a document of admissions. They admitted that Awaab’s parents had reported mould from as early as 2017 and had contacted them on several occasions about the issue right until Awaab’s death. They admitted that after their inspection of the property in July 2020, when mould was observed, remedial works should have taken place. They admitted that it was inappropriate for them to have to shifted the blame on to the lifestyle of Awaab and his parents.
Christian Weaver, a barrister who represented the Ishaks established that the house met the definition of being 'unfit for human habitation' when it was inspected on 14 July 2020.
On 9 July 2020, shortly before the RBH inspection took place, RBH received a letter from the family’s NHS health visitor stating that she had been to the property and was concerned that the mould could affect Awaab’s health.
The mould was so severe that only professional intervention could deal with it. In other words, the family were dependent on the landlord to do something about it.
The Guardian reports that Awaab’s home was not even the worst on the estate. One RBH member likened the mould in some other properties as being ‘like black slime on the walls’. Other RBH residents have told the BBC that their homes are in conditions similar to the images they have seen of Awaab’s. Mould does not become so severe that it can be likened to black slime overnight. Given that no remedial works took place in Awaab’s home between the date of inspection in July and his death, one has to question whether RBH would ever have rectified the issues in Awaab’s family’s home.
According to Christian Weaver:
“The appalling death of Awaab Ishak shows how social housing tenants are treated as an underclass.”
There has been some reaction:
The coroner called this a 'defining moment'. However, five years ago many people said that the fire at Grenfell Tower was a ‘defining moment’. The trouble is that after the initial shock has died down, people in authority tend to move on and nothing changes.
Anyone associated with social housing, whether as a tenant, someone who works in social housing, a housing association board member or a local councillor knows that Awaab Ishak’s flat was not the only one in the social housing stock that is not of an acceptable standard. There are several local authorities and housing associations that let homes to tenants that fail the decent homes standard, and a significant number of these are not fit for human habitation.
In fact, anyone who watches the ITV News will be aware of this from the excellent reports that have been made by Daniel Hewitt, exposing both housing associations and local authorities as landlords who are unconcerned by the fact that their homes are not of an acceptable standard.
In my work, I often come across local authorities and housing associations that do not invest enough in their existing stock, either because they lack resources or because they prioritise expenditure on management or development.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the attention of politicians, the media and the public has focused on the need to empower tenants to complain about the condition of their homes and to ensure that improvements are made. However, while everyone appears to agree with this approach, in practice the government has made slow progress with plans to change the regulatory system while landlords have been prepared to wait for the regulatory system to change rather than making improvements themselves.
While Michael Gove is right to ask local authorities and housing associations to ‘raise the bar’ he also needs to look at the ‘plank in his own eye’. It was the government that:
In the social housing sector we pride ourselves on being people who care about others in society and want to ensure, not only that everyone is adequately housed, but is empowered to achieve their full potential. However, there are clearly cases where we are failing in this mission. This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.
I fully support the proposals in the white paper to give tenants more influence over their homes and lives but I don’t think they go far enough. I would also suggest:
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