A hellish world in which lives are put at risk because of moldy and crumbling homes is exposed by the Sunday Mirror tomorrow.
We have spent hours with miserable families who have to huddle up in homes unfit for habitation.
Some 1.5 million rentals fall below government standards. Treating illness linked to conditions costs the NHS £1.4billion a year.
We found black walls with mold and ceilings that have collapsed.
A number of residents have been rushed to hospital with lung problems caused by the damp. One woman was warned by her doctor that her moldy flat could kill her.
Gaping holes in regulations mean stretched social housing providers and rogue landlords go unchallenged.
Nick Wilkinson/Birmingham Live)
Tomorrow, the Mirror launches a Safe as Houses campaign – backed by experts – to end the squalor. We want:
- Complaints systems overhauled so tenants are not left in limbo for years.
- A ban on so-called “no fault” evictions, which allow private landlords to make tenants homeless if they complain about living conditions.
- A compulsory national register to show that properties are safe.
Among the most harrowing stories we came across was that of cystic fibrosis sufferer Lisa Grainger, 31.
She needs an urgent double lung transplant and first complained of mold in her Birmingham council flat in September 2019. By then she had been hospitalized six times in six months with chest infections.
Lisa – backed by letters from her doctors – has resorted to sleeping in her parents’ spare room because she is so anxious about her flat.
The former receptionist, now too sick to work, said: “I was really worried when the doctors wrote those letters as my health is obviously not great anyway.
“It’s gone past the point where I’d accept an apology. It’s not going to get back the time spent in hospital.”
Sharing some of the medics’ letters with us, Lisa revealed how Dr Richard Thompson, a consultant in the heart and lung transplant unit at Birmingham University Hospitals, contacted her.
He wrote: “I was very unsettled to hear your existing flat is damp and mouldy. This is completely unacceptable given your complex medical regimen and recent difficulties. This could pose a major threat to your health. I believe it is unsafe for you to return there.”
The council responded in October 2019 to say Lisa didn’t meet the medical criteria for a new property. In a second letter, Dr Thompson wrote: “Continued exposure to mold may hasten your death. I hope this is clear enough for the relevant authorities.” Lisa, who is on housing benefit, was reassessed and added to a lengthy waiting list.
The council now says it has a new property for her – but it could be months before it is ready.
Lisa added: “I will believe they have a new flat for me when I see it.”
Her mum Martine, 57, who gave up her charity job to care for Lisa, said: “It’s maddening. If Lisa isn’t a priority for a new home, who is? It’s been horrible. I think I’ve got PTSD. The doctor put me on antidepressants because of the stress.”
Sadly, Lisa’s case is far from unique.
New government figures reveal 13% of social housing – 520,000 abodes – don’t meet its decent homes standard.
That is defined as being in a reasonable state of repair, with reasonably modern services and providing a reasonable degree of thermal comfort.
A further 21% of privately rented homes – 924,000 – are below par too. The numbers living in nightmare conditions will be far higher as large families are often crammed in.
Many providers are grappling with a huge repair backlog due to Covid.
But the impact on tenants’ physical and mental health while they wait for essential work is often catastrophic.
Adam Tinson, senior analyst at the Health Foundation, said: “Damp and mold are associated with a range of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions such as asthma and wheezing.
“The lack of control over your environment is often what induces worse mental health and anxiety.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of homeless charity Shelter, said: “Our homes should be a place of safety and security, but the horror stories we hear from renters stuck in nightmare conditions are endless. Enough is enough, renters are getting a rotten deal and they deserve better.
Nick Wilkinson/Birmingham Live)
“It’s good to see the Sunday Mirror joining the fight. We need every political party driving forward the new renters’ reform bill and legislation to regulate social housing.”
Shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook said: “Too many tenants are forced to live in insecure, poor quality, unaffordable accommodation, so Labor welcomes this campaign.
“Tenants cannot wait any longer for a better deal. The Government must urgently bring forward legislation to improve conditions and to strengthen the rights and security afforded to private renters.”
A Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities spokesman said: “These conditions are unacceptable and that is why we are bringing in stronger regulation to make sure everyone has a safe and decent place to live – including banning ‘no fault’ evictions.
“We are driving up standards in social housing and will introduce new powers for the regulator to act robustly when things go wrong.”
Birmingham City Council apologized to Lisa for “distress” caused by her flat.
A spokesman said: “We are aware she needs 24-hour care and a specialist property close to her family.
“We have been in regular discussion and are adapting a new flat, which the tenant will be moving into later this year.”
WILLIAM LAILEY/CATERS NEWS)
Coats on as family shivers in cold
Shattered mum Emma Reynolds-Kemp is at her wits’ end in another flat owned by Birmingham City Council.
It is so cold and damp that she, Leah, eight, and Lewis, three, keep their coats on – and the kids wake up with blue lips.
Lewis, who has a severe airway disease, has been to the GP 50 times and hospitalized three times with breathing problems. His mum blames the damp.
WILLIAM LAILEY/CATERS NEWS)
Emma, 26, says the council promised to inspect the moldy flat but four visits were canceled at the last minute. The full-time mum, who gets housing benefit, says: “I’m still getting nowhere. I’ve broken down on the phone to the council. Lewis’s chest has been getting so bad. He’s had to have steroids to open his chest.
“The doctor says he’s been having too many for his age and that’s a concern. Seeing your child struggling to breathe is really upsetting. It’s so scary. The windows are old and the problem won’t go away until they replace them. I’m spending so much but I can’t heat the flat. If prices go up, I might have to choose between heating and eating.”
The council said a contractor would treat the mould, adding: “We are in the process of moving everyone out as the block is due to be demolished in the next few years. We remain committed to homes of an appropriate standard.”
WILLIAM LAILEY/CATERS NEWS)
Roof leak floored me
Asthma sufferer Andy Hesford, 43, spotted a hole in the roof within days of moving into his social housing property with wife Katherine, 38, and daughter Alyssia, seven.
Water started to leak in and damp patches appeared on the ceiling.
Andy, from Bicester, Oxon, suffered worsening asthma and ended up in hospital in December 2019.
He said: “I was struggling to breathe. We called 111. They told me to get straight to A&E. I take my inhaler more because of the air quality. Katherine also has really bad colds.”
They complained to housing association Sanctuary without success. Housing specialists CEL Solicitors secured an out-of-court settlement last May. But the roof has not been fixed. Alyssia’s bed had to be moved after she was woken up by rain falling on her face. Andy said: “We think, ‘When is the ceiling going to fall down’?”
Sanctuary said work will start on Tuesday, adding: “We are sorry for the time it has taken to resolve this.”
Ceiling collapse profile
Ceilings at Nicola Branch’s flat have collapsed three times – once after she had returned home from saying goodbye to her dying mum Joan, 90.
At least three other flats in Nicola’s social housing block have similar issues. Council worker Nicola, 52, is adamant the building in Southwark, South London, needs better work – and fears someone could die.
She said: “Your home is supposed to be the place you feel safest. For me, it’s the opposite.
©2021 Steve Bainbridge)
“If I’d been in my hallway when the ceiling collapsed, it could have killed me. My neighbor’s ceiling collapsed inches from where her son was doing his homework.”
Nicola’s flat is covered in a thick film of ceiling dust. She said: “I’m asthmatic and my cough is so bad my GP sent me for a chest X-ray. I’ve developed a stammer from all the stress.”
Peabody housing association said it fixed Nicola’s ceiling, it was examining the roof and gutters, and added: “We’ll continue to do everything we can to make homes safe and comfortable.”
We want to see:
- The complaints system overhauled so tenants’ complaints have to be resolved within a set period
- A ban on so-called “no fault” evictions
- A national landlord register to ensure safety standards are met
Get house in order…
The Tories published a social housing White Paper in 2020 – but none of its recommendations have been made law.
It promised to work with the social housing regulator on a framework for handling complaints.
Current rules say they should be resolved “promptly, politely and fairly”, but do not specify a time frame. This means many living for years in mouldy, dangerous or rat-infested properties.
The Mirror demands complaints be resolved in a period defined by law.
John Lowry, director and head of housing disrepair claims at CEL Solicitors, said: “Three months, in my eyes, is enough time to get an inspection done and contractors booked in.”
Private tenants often have similar problems but many do not complain for fear of being made homeless.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.