The shocking death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak has brought to light the widespread issue of mould and damp, which is rife throughout UK homes.
According to charity Shelter, “1 in 5 renters say their home is harming their health”. In other words, millions of renters are getting sick because they are forced to live in housing that is mouldy, cold, unaffordable, insecure, and dangerous.
Awaab’s story is the tragic result of this situation. He died from prolonged exposure to mould, which caused his throat to swell and compromised his breathing.
The flat that he lived in had no effective ventilation. And despite repeated requests for the issue to be fixed, the housing association that owned and managed the property did nothing. Instead, management at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) blamed the mould on the ‘family’s lifestyle’.
Despite the coroner blaming mouldy conditions for Awaab’s death, and reports that the boy’s father had made repeated complaints to RBH, the organisation’s CEO, Gareth Swarbrick, refused to step down from his position, and was even backed by the board following the inquest.
Eventually Swarbrick was fired, but only as a result of enormous pressure from tenants and activists.
The problem is not confined to this one housing association, however. Working-class families all over Britain face similar conditions.
About 450,000 homes in England are believed to have problems with condensation and mould. A recent report by the Housing Ombudsman found that in 56% of cases it investigated, landlords failed to do anything to address the issue, or made inappropriate or ineffective changes, resulting in damp and mould developing.
The Tories have pointed the finger at housing associations, with Michael Gove, the minister for housing and communities, writing to every English council leader and social housing provider to warn them that deaths like Awaab’s must “never be allowed to happen again”.
Furthermore, Gove added that they should do “everything in their power to prioritise the improvement of housing conditions for the millions of private and social tenants”.
This Tory hand-wringing stinks of hypocrisy. It was Thatcher’s government who began the sell-off of council housing. It is the Tories who have presided over historically-low rates of new-build construction, creating a severe housing shortage that forces renters into cold, poorly-maintained properties. And it is Tory-led governments who have slashed local authority budgets, leading to short-staffed housing departments that are unable to respond quickly to complaints.
Looking out for landlords
Similarly, in 2016, a year before the Grenfell fire, Conservative MPs voted against an amendment to the government’s housing and planning bill which would have ensured that all rented homes were fit for human habitation.
Furthermore, when Teresa Pearce, then shadow housing minister, put forward the amendment, citing concerns about mouldy walls in rental accommodation, the Tories argued against it by saying that it would needlessly add to landlords’ costs.
The Tories’ attacks on tenants don’t stop there. Under the updated housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS), inspectors will be told to consider detailed ‘behavioural factors’ when assessing properties – such as whether occupants are exposing themselves to excessively low temperatures due to ‘ignorance’.
In other words, attention and responsibility will be deflected away from dodgy landlords, housing associations, and property developers, with tenants scapegoated instead.
Profits vs lives
This latest scandal comes amidst a severe housing crisis, which has left many with no option but to accept mould and poor quality homes.
With such intense competition for rental accommodation, the already-difficult task of getting private landlords to take action will increasingly become impossible. This, in turn, is likely to lead to an increase in tenants being ignored or evicted just for raising issues.
The government claims that ordinary people are exposing themselves to low temperatures due to ‘ignorance’. In reality, however, cold homes are the result of the deepening energy crisis, which the Tories have utterly failed to address.
While the energy monopolies rake in record profits, millions are unable to afford to properly heat and ventilate their homes.
The privatisation of Britain’s housing stock has been a disaster. Unscrupulous landlords have pocketed tenants’ money. The quality of accommodation available on the market has deteriorated. And the proportion of workers’ income required to cover rents has risen to an eye-watering national average of 46%.
Bold socialist policies are needed to urgently address this misery and catastrophe.
The big landlords, management firms, and property developers should all be expropriated. Empty properties owned by speculators and investors should be requisitioned. And housing associations and their properties must be brought back under public ownership and democratic control.
Furthermore, the energy giants should be nationalised, in order to bring down our bills. And we should nationalise the banks and major construction companies, in order to implement a crash programme of house-building, and to insulate all existing homes and bring them up to a decent standard.
On this basis, millions of new council houses could be built; the scourge of mould and damp could be eliminated; and a decent home could be guaranteed to all.