The inquest into the death of a two-year-old-boy, Awaab Ishak, in Rochdale, has found that black mould and the landlord’s repeated failure to fix the problem, was to blame. Delivering her verdict, senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said: “I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought: how does this happen? How, in the UK in 2020, does a two-year-old child die from exposure to mould in his home?”
If Awaab’s is a tragic and shocking story, it is not surprising. Campaigners and scholars have long highlighted the need for reform. We asked Professor Paresh Wankhade, who has written about the aftermath of the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster, to explain what this says about social housing and the private rental sector in the UK.
What constitutes disrepair in a property?
Current government guidance covering housing disrepair states that landlords (both social housing and private) have several obligations. These include repairing obligations in the tenancy agreement imposed by the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985; legal duties of care, as set out in section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972, which are owed to the tenant, the tenant’s family and to visitors; and statutory nuisance (control of health), as covered by the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Housing disrepair is the term used to describe property that is not fit for human habitation. If a landlord or letting agent doesn’t carry out repairs, a tenant can ask the local council to carry out an inspection using a risk assessment tool called the housing health and safety rating system.
If the property is found to be uninhabitable, in England and Wales, tenants have three legal avenues. There’s the contract they signed with the landlord and the legislation in place. Last, if the landlord has failed to both abide by the contract and follow the law (tort), the tenant can take them to court.
How widespread in the housing sector is the legal disrepair policy, which the coroner mentioned in her verdict?
For a disrepair claim to go ahead, an actionable repair must have been reported to the landlord or the landlord’s agent and the works must have failed to be completed within a reasonable timeframe. This will have resulted in the tenant being adversely impacted.
Some social landlords say that in recent years, no-win-no-fees legal companies have increasingly been approaching tenants. These companies file claims on the tenants’ behalf, via solicitors, then negotiate compensation with the landlords.
A consortium of eight social landlords recently hired a lobbying firm to, as one report put it, “reduce the capacity of tenants” to pursue “inappropriate disrepair claims”.
“I also find,” the coroner said, “from the evidence of Mr Abdullah and Ms Amin [Awaab Ishak’s parents] that the mould in the property was a recurring, consistent issue and in June 2020 Mr Abdullah instructed solicitors. In all likelihood it appears this claim was initiated via a claims company. Due to policy the impact of the commencement of a claim meant that any disrepairs found would not be undertaken until there had been an agreement from the claimant’s solicitors.”
So it was only once the claim was brought by the family in 2020 – three years after first raising the issue – and there had been an agreement from the claimant’s solicitors, that the housing association would have attended to the problem.
My view is that Awaab’s family paid a heavy price, due to this fundamental mistrust between the landlords and residents more widely, and to this practice of waiting to settle a claim before undertaking repairs. This process appears designed to protect the landlord from any reputational damage, should the case go to court. Some blame can therefore be attributed to the proliferation of possibly not-so-genuine cases brought by these no-win-no-claim management companies.
Awaab’s family have said that in attempting to get the housing association to repair their property, they faced racism. How widespread is discrimination in housing?
RBH has admitted to making assumptions about the family’s lifestyle being to blame for the mould. In this case, it seems the the housing association failed to see the tenants as real people. It also failed to see the sufferings they were enduring – despite several warnings. And it appears they made little attempt to ensure the family understood what remedies they were being told to take.
Communication between landlords and residents here is central. The coroner was clear that Awaab’s father, Faisal Abdullah, had a limited understanding and ability to converse in English. She said that when the housing association told him to repaint, as a remedy for the mould, he likely had not fully understood what anti-mould treatment to use.
In 2021 evidence from the Housing charity Shelter suggested that in the UK, black and Asian tenants are five times more likely to experience discrimination when looking for a safe, secure and affordable home than white people and to end up inhabiting, as journalist Patrick Butler put it, “shoddy, unsafe and unsuitable accommodation”.
New research into racial inequalities in terms of housing and homelessness, from scholars at Heriot-Watt University bears this out. They have found that 30% of black people, who have experienced homelessness have also experienced racial discrimination from a landlord.
A 2020 study in the UK highlighted provisions concerning housing in the UK Immigration Act 2016 as being central to the Conservative government’s efforts to curb immigration by creating a hostile environment. Landlords in England are required to conduct immigration document checks on prospective tenants. According to the study’s authors, this has created a “potentially discriminatory environment for all migrants, as well as for British citizens who lack documentation and or may be subject to racial profiling”. It may also be forcing vulnerable, undocumented migrants into even more precarious housing situations.
In 2020, the government published its social housing white paper setting out a charter for social housing residents. In his foreword, then-prime minister Boris Johnson wrote that the idea that “social tenants are less worthy of respect” remained “all too prevalent”.
If that report was heralded as potentially transformational, no timetable has been set for the actions it proposed to be delivered. Meanwhile, tenants in social housing – and in the wider private rental market – continue to face an uphill battle to secure safe homes for their families.
Paresh Wankhade is affiliated with the Fire Service Research and Training Trust as a Trustee.