Damp, dirt, decay: is the mould in this east London housing block the UK’s worst?

<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer

Everywhere you look in Paige Whyte’s flat, you can find mould. It spreads across the bathroom and encircles the skirting board of her bedroom and corridors. Slowly but inevitably, it has stared infecting everything: bags, clothes, toys, even her tattoo tools. Her bed is so badly infested with mould that much of the headboard’s grey fabric recently turned green.

The problem has become so bad she has swapped rooms with her young son to ensure he sleeps in the one part of the house less riddled with spores.

“I usually clean it, then I have to repaint the house [and use] mould solution – but it only prevents it for an extra couple of weeks,” she said. “The expense of it is crippling.”

After six years in the building, she has stopped trying to get help from the council. “We had someone from the council come and check on the house, and she was saying that, because I live on the outside corner of the building, it was something I would just have to live with, just the way the building was made,” she said.

Whyte’s case is by no means an isolated one. In east London’s Mansfield Court, which is owned by Hackney council, the Observer visited and spoke to tenants in more than half of the 25 flats in the block. Every one of them reported mould and damp in their flats. Two tenants have developed incurable lung conditions that they believe are exacerbated by the condition of the building.

Mouldy, damp, broken houses are a nationwide problem; last month, the housing ombudsman said that the number of complaints about damp and leaks from social-housing tenants in England is on course to more than double for last year compared with 2020/21. But Mansfield Court is one of the worst examples of building-wide mould and dilapidation that the Observer has come across.

Every Sunday I have to do a deep-clean of the house for two hours. I have to wear two masks to deal with the fumes

In some flats, almost entire walls or ceilings are totally blackened with mould. In others, it snakes around skirting boards and behind cupboards and sofas, taking over tenants’ curtains, clothes and sometimes entire beds while leaving many, including young children, sick for days at a time. Most residents claimed they had received little to no help from the council.

“It feels like this infection taking over your home,” says Whyte. “It’s as if it’s not yours any more – the mould owns it.”

The building also shows signs of extreme disrepair. The concrete is crumbling and the communal corridors are covered with yellow-white stalactites, some as long as 8in, that hang from the wastewater pipes that run along the ceiling.

Many residents have also reported a repeated problem with the stench of sewage emanating from the pipes.

When Dede, another resident, went to visit her family, she made sure never to eat a meal there before coming home. She says that, back inside her flat, the constant stench of sewage would make her vomit. It took years before the council decided to fix the problem during the pandemic.

The smell was at the top of a long list of problems for Dede over the years – including leaking pipes, cracked ceilings and walls filled with damp and mouldShe believes this has had a dire impact on her health. “Between the ages of 14 and 34, I’d probably had two inhalers. And after I was living here, I’ve now got COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], emphysema and acute asthma,” she told the Observer.

When we spoke to Dede, she had just begun the process of taking the council to court over the disrepair in her flat.

Similarly, her neighbour, Max, has taken the council to court after being diagnosed with an incurable lung disease that his doctors warn is likely to be caused or exacerbated by the chronic mould and damp in his flat.

Mansfield Court resident Max, in a baseball cap and face mask, holds his phone to show a picture of the mould previously in his kitchen
Mansfield Court resident Max, who has an incurable lung disease, shows a picture of the chronic mould in his kitchen before it was treated. Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer

Two floors down from Max’s flat, another tenant, Valerie, told the Observer she has to empty a dehumidifier in her flat every three hours to keep the mould and damp at bay. “Every Sunday now I have to do a deep-clean of the house for two hours. I have to wear two masks to deal with the fumes because of my allergies,” she said. Within the week, she said, the black spots always begin to cover the walls again. And each month it spreads into more and more rooms in the house.

Now that the mould and damp in the flat of another resident, Laura Oakley, has spread across the ceilings and kitchen, she says that she and her family try to spend as much time outside as possible.

But it’s just one part of a string of problems the private tenant has faced since moving into her flat a couple of years ago – leaking pipes in the kitchen, a noxious smell of sewage in the flat and an infestation in the bedroom of silverfish (a type of pest insect that thrives in humid and damp environments) are among others, she claims.

“I fear the impact it has on my family’s health,” she says. “We have a really good landlord and he looks after the flat. But it’s a problem with the building. And at that point you’ve hit a wall.”

Some of the issues in the building have been solved over the years. The smell that plagued Dede and other tenants, for example, improved for some flats after the council took the decision to flush the building’s sewage pipes last year in response to a complaint made then. Tenants claim they had complained before this.

Most of the residents we spoke to said that when they have approached the council for help they have often faced a huge waiting list before even the most basic work is done. Others who sought alternative council housing were told they would face a multiple-year waiting list before they could be moved.

“The whole process feels like it’s designed to make you go mad,” said Max.

A spokesperson for Hackney council said: “Our tenants deserve safe, secure and warm homes, and we are committed to doing all we can to provide those.

“We have carried out numerous surveys, including this week of Mansfield Court, which have shown that while there are some external repairs needed, the block is safe.”

The council claimed that it had only received a small number of reports of damp and mould in the building from any of the residents mentioned in the piece in the last two years but acknowledged that its records may be incomplete due to ongoing complications arising from a cyberattack in 2020.

The council stressed that “damp and mould is an extensive issue being faced by social and private landlords across the country”.

The spokesperson added that the council has now committed to dealing with all issues with damp and mould in Hackney within five working days, prioritising the most severe cases and those worst affected, all backed by an additional investment of £1m in housing.

Related: UK tenants face blame for causing toxic mould and deadly hazards under new rules

They also said the council would be visiting the building over the next few weeks to talk to tenants and address the issues with mould, damp and disrepair that they are facing, and that it would “provide households with support and guidance on practical steps that can be taken to help prevent the issues recurring”.

After the Observer approached the council for comment, it contacted Dede and agreed with her that she would drop her potential case in exchange for making significant repair works to her flat.

Housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway has said that the issue of chronic mould in England has still “not been getting the priority or the urgency that it needs from social landlords”, while housing charity Shelter has warned that “private renting is still trailing behind” changes proposed in the social housing sector.