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Slum Housing Is Social Murder

Taj Ali

Yesterday, a coroner ruled that 2-year-old Awaab Ishak died as a result of prolonged exposure to mould. The tragedy exposes the lethal consequences of Britain’s slum housing.

Yesterday a coroner ruled that 2-year-old Awaab Ishak died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in a home environment. Action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken. Awaab Ishak, from Rochdale, died in December 2020. 

‘Living in these conditions affected every aspect of our lives,’ said the family of Awaab Ishak. This gut-wrenching, avoidable tragedy epitomises just how serious the current situation is with poor social housing. And the longer the government, local councils and housing associations sit on their hands, the longer the poorest and most vulnerable in our society will continue to suffer.

Social murder

Ishak’s fatal illness due to prolonged exposure to mould is just one of many examples where residents have become severely ill due to poor social housing. Many of Britain’s housing association tenants are forced to live in homes that are infested, overrun with mould, and on the brink of collapse. A desperate state of neglect and disrepair—a state worsened by housing associations that refuse to listen to the concerns of tenants. 

Emma is one of those tenants. She lives by herself in a block of flats in Coventry plagued by mould and damp. Emma has now developed brittle asthma, a rare and severe form of asthma that has made life incredibly difficult. She can barely breathe and has been on nebulisers in every instance. Every step she takes leads her to feel wheezy and out of breath. Yet, despite repeated pleas to her housing provider, nothing has been done. ‘We just get fobbed off. Same as other people in my block. They do nothing to resolve the issue.’ She tells Tribune. ‘They say it’s nothing to do with them, and it’s our own personal responsibility, but when it’s an issue around the whole block, clearly it’s not an issue of personal responsibility.’

Another resident, Sarah*, echoes Emma’s remarks. She says residents are either told they are responsible for fixing the issue or, in the rare instance that the housing association agrees to look into the problem, residents are stood up. ‘They were meant to come out a few times and just didn’t turn up.’ 

Sarah is a mother to three young girls, all of whom now have asthma due to a worsening mould problem. The mould in her flat has spread to the nets and curtains in her children’s room. The shed area of her block, where pushchairs are stored, has mould so severe that she says residents can ‘physically taste it’. Residents are then forced to scrub mould off the pushchairs. For Emma, this is a matter of protecting her health. She’s been in ICU three times in the past year alone, leading to her doctor writing a letter to the council pleading for them to provide her with alternative accommodation for her life-threatening condition. 

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health report released in November last year found that eleven percent of all homes in England are ‘poor quality’ and contain one or more category one serious hazard. Meanwhile, recent media investigations have exposed particular instances of neglect and disrepair in social and council housing—a problem that even the Tories have acknowledged. 

According to the English Housing Survey, 839,000 homes in England have a problem. However, the Housing Ombudsman believes the numbers are much higher. 

Poor housing significantly impacts the health and educational outcomes of the children who live in it. A report released by Shelter in 2006 found that poor housing conditions increased the risk of severe ill-health or disability by up to twenty-five percent during childhood and early adulthood; children living in bad housing are more likely to have respiratory problems like coughing and asthmatic wheezing, to be at risk of infections, and to have mental health problems. And by increasing the likelihood of missing regular school, these health problems, in turn, had a detrimental impact on their education. 

Georgie, now 22, grew up in a council house in Southwark. When her younger brother was only 12-old-months, he was hospitalised due to the mould in their household. ‘It’s a problem that goes back to the 90s. My dad’s said they had a leaky pipe that wasn’t fixed properly, causing a mould issue.’

There were consistent leaks, mould and damp issues for her and her family growing up, she tells Tribune. ‘When I was younger, I used to build dens and part of that involved going to the back of the wardrobe and I vividly remember seeing thick layers of mould.’ Whilst she didn’t understand what mould was as a child, she recalls her parents being very stressed about the situation. ‘We were on the housing list for thirteen years before we got moved on.’

In her current flat, too, a new build, Georgie has raised concerns around damp and fire safety but to no avail. The entirety of her block has no compartmentalisation, and she has had to push very hard for basic fire safety checks. ‘Even after the remedial works, it was not safe. Fire doors weren’t working, for instance,’ she tells Tribune.
‘There’s a strong level of contempt for social housing tenants. We are just never heard or told to be grateful for housing that puts us at risk. When we raise concerns we are seen as troublemakers.’

A culture of impunity

By neglecting housing tenants, Councils and housing associations are endangering lives. The tragic death of 2-year Awaab Ishak epitomises the issue’s seriousness. The same pattern of neglect and disregard that led to the Grenfell tragedy was present in the lead-up to Ishak’s death, and, for thousands of housing tenants, that culture is ever-present today. 

The Grenfell tower fire, for instance, was predicted a decade before it happened. In 2007, Arconic, the company that manufactured the flammable cladding, were given a dramatic warning by a consultant who said the ACM cladding had the same ‘fuel power’ as a 19,000-litre truck of oil. ‘What will happen if only one building made out of PE is on fire and kills 60 to 70 persons?’ asked consultant Fred-Roderich Pohl in 2007. A decade later, this caused the fire at Grenfell Tower to spread rapidly and led to the deaths of 72 people.

Grenfell Action Group had documented and warned about health and safety issues for years and were repeatedly ignored and sidelined. This culture of neglect is still incredibly pervasive, and working-class communities are suffering as a result. In a blog written six months before the Grenfell fire, residents warned ‘It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation] will be found out and brought to justice!’ 

Except, of course, those complicit in those deaths were never brought to justice. It’s the same story again and again and again. We also cannot ignore the racial dimension to both the Grenfell Tower disaster, where the majority of the tenants were people of colour and the death of Awaab Ishak. In the case of Ishak, Ishak’s parents say they believe their ethnicity contributed to their complaints not being taken seriously when he was alive. In Ishak’s case, a young Muslim boy, there was an assumption about ‘ritual bathing’ (referring to the Muslim practice of ablution before prayer) without evidence. This naked prejudice and racism was a pathetic attempt to remove responsibility from the landlord and to blame tenants who simply want to live, breathe, cook and wash in a home fit for human habitation. 

In October last year, the Housing Ombudsman’s report into damp and mould in social housing warned that blaming tenants for having baths and drying clothes should be ‘banished from the vernacular of landlords when discussing damp and mould.’ Yet these racist attitudes, for the specific purpose of shirking responsibility from those who should be held accountable, remain incredibly pervasive in the housing sector—and in wider society for that matter. 

We cannot allow this tragedy to be reduced to a ‘lessons learned’ postscript on the inhumane nature of social housing in Britain. What is urgently required now is decent, affordable housing for all, strengthening the rights of housing tenants and the prosecution of landlords, housing associations and authority figures who allow such tragedies to occur. The death of any individual as a result of an organisational culture that pays scant regard to health and safety should be treated as an act of criminality. It is a form of structural violence that has been allowed to persist for far too long—with devastating consequences for working-class people in particular. 

The death of Awaab Ishak should never have happened—and it is criminal that it did. However, the longer those in power sit on their hands and fail to bring about these fundamental changes, the longer social housing tenants will continue to suffer. The severity of the issue is clear for all to see. It’s time for action and accountability.