Awaab Ishak died in 2017 in a home infested with mould which had a catastrophic effect on his breathing. His parents complained to their housing association landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), but the landlord repeatedly failed to address the causes. No-one in authority seemed able to force them to make the necessary fixes.
Michael Gove MP, once again Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was said to have been furious about the incident. He demanded that RBH and six other housing associations which featured in a recent Housing Ombudsman report on damp and mould take immediate action on housing standards (iNews).
The BBC and other channels reported Michael Gove’s outburst
Following the interview, Gove wrote an open letter to social housing providers telling them “I expect you to go further than the letter of the [Decent Homes] Standard and have particular regard to damp and mould”, going on to say “I am more determined than ever to deliver our drastic reforms to the housing sector, protecting the rights of tenants and ensuring social landlords do not put people’s lives and livelihoods at risk”.
Noting the outburst and subsequent written rebuke, anyone would be forgiven for thinking firstly that this government had no role in the deregulation of the sector over the last four decades, and secondly that it now intends to give tenants and residents the power to hold landlords to account.
Plans for More Victim Blaming
This would be a misreading of the situation. Just two days after the coroner ruled on the death of Awaab Ishak, reports emerged that “councils inspecting rented properties will be formally instructed to examine residents’ behaviour when deciding whether to take action against landlords over dangerous conditions” (The Guardian). In other words, check first for ways to blame the victim.
The tragedy of Awaab’s death prompted the media to turn its lighthouse beam on the housing association sector, but they have consistently reported the conditions that Awaab’s family experienced as if they are exceptional.
Yet tenants and residents with lived experience of housing associations know that they are not. Damp and mould is a widespread problem, and almost every landlord has properties that are unsafe. Nonetheless, tenants and residents are expected to suffer in silence whilst being grateful for being housed.
These poor standards are not news to Gove. In 2020 his own department reported that “In 2020, 3.5 million occupied homes did not meet the Decent Homes Standard” and found that serious damp problems were affecting almost one third of these (English Housing Survey). That’s almost 1,000,000 households enduring toxic health hazards as a matter of course.
Safety an Optional Extra
Gove’s letter concludes “It is vital that we learn from the mistakes that led to the tragic death of Awaab”. But Government’s track record on learning from housing mistakes is not good.
In June 2017, a fire engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London, killing at least 72 people including children, and, disproportionately, disabled people. Despite the outcry of horror, nothing has fundamentally changed.
Government in fact rejected the very first recommendation of the Grenfell public inquiry which urged them to make it a legal requirement for landlords to hold Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for disabled people (CLADDAG).
Arguments over who should pay to remove unsuitable cladding are also still being waged. Around 10,000 buildings remain unsafely clad. No-one has been prosecuted for the killings, and landlords can rest assured that the safety of their tenants and residents is an optional extra.
Little has changed in the power of tenants and residents to make buildings safe despite the Grenfell fire tragedy
Dig down into Awaab’s case and you hit the dysfunctional complaints, regulatory, and tribunal system which is supposed to settle disputes and address problems.
There is a lack of access to justice for tenants and residents with problem landlords, and the institutions that supposedly regulate their behaviour have only the weakest of sanctions available to them. Instead of enabling redress, the control systems create barriers at every stage that are designed to wear down even the most determined complainant.
Multiple Social Housing Scandals
Unfit homes represent just one of the many scandals that lie largely unreported within this sector. There are the other scandals of service charge abuse, disability discrimination, the ever reducing number of homes for social rent, social cleansing, habitable homes lying empty for years, the mis-selling of shared ownership properties, rising homelessness, and the poor quality of new buildings. The list of issues is endless.
The social housing model itself is fundamentally flawed. It now expects income collected by housing associations through rents to be invested in new housing, as well as meeting all the costs of maintaining and managing the rented properties.
This requirement and other changes to the funding model have driven the sector towards an ever greater commercialisation, dependence on the finance markets and joint venture vehicles, and partnerships with councils. Government has all but pulled away from grant-funded investment in housing supply through local authorities.
All these trends are driven by the decisions that Gove and his predecessors have taken, whatever colour of government happened to be in charge at the time.
As many will have noted, Gove’s letter is addressed solely to councils and housing associations. Yet why should this be so? Private landlords are equally guilty of squalid housing not fit for human habitation. Is it perhaps because around one-third of MPs benefit from rental income?
Create a Movement for Change
Ultimately, we cannot expect the landlord class to remedy the imbalance in power between landlords and their tenants and residents that Gove touches on. And unless this is remedied, as Grenfell demonstrated, nothing will change.
A coalition of housing campaign groups including SHAC protest outside Gove’s head office
We need a movement to create tenant and resident power because ‘voice’ is not enough, and because organised tenant unions are the only way for people to hold their landlords to account. Ultimately, we need to remodel public housing so that it is truly in public hands, managed through democratic tenant and resident structures.
This is a battle that requires unity, not just across the housing campaign groups, tenant organisations, and activists, but with the staff working in the sector whose jobs no longer offer a social purpose, as they once did.
The Unite Housing Workers branch represents the voices of many workers in the housing association sector
Paul Kershaw, Chair of the Unite Housing Workers branch said “as housing workers we are disappointed but not surprised at lack of response from sector leaders to the problems afflicting these landlords. Our members experience much of the same bullying and victimisation that is the corporate default towards tenants and residents”.
He also noted that the attitudes of housing executives reflect the commercial focus of housing associations, adding “This is a class issue. Organised housing workers will continue to be part of the movement for change and to make social landlords accountable.”
No-one in authority is going to come to the rescue. And tweaking the regulatory framework won’t do it either. We have to create the movement that will make the change. That’s what we are trying to achieve through SHAC.
21 November 2022
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