Thousands of tenants could be blamed for toxic black mold and other life-threatening hazards under a government overhaul of the housing enforcement system.
Leaked documents seen by the Observer suggest councils inspecting rented properties will be formally tasked with reviewing residents’ behavior when deciding whether to take action against landlords due to unsafe conditions.
As part of the updated Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), environmental health inspectors will be asked to consider detailed “behavioural factors”, such as whether residents take enough steps to ensure that their property is heated and ventilated, including the use of heating, running extractor fans and opening windows. Other factors they will need to consider include whether people are exposing themselves to excessively low temperatures due to ignorance, a “stoic and often built-in attitude” to the cold, or a desire to “reduce emissions”. carbon,” adds the guide, developed for the Department for Upgrading, Housing and Communities in September.
The government has strongly denied that the revised guidelines have watered down protections for tenants. But experts said the new requirement for inspectors to consider ‘behavioral factors’ risked opening the door to people’s lifestyles accused of ‘really serious problems’.
Details of the plans come days after an inquest found toxic mold growth caused the death of a two-year-old boy, Awaab Ishak, who died in December 2020 from cardiac arrest caused by problems respiratory. Her father had repeatedly raised the issue with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), but no action was taken.
Manchester North Senior Coroner Joanne Kearsley said the ventilation in the one-bedroom flat was not effective and the family landlord had overemphasized ‘the cause of lifestyle mold parents”.
The revised guidelines for advice, which have not yet been made public and are expected to come into effect by April 2023, will primarily be used by environmental health officers to assess the need for enforcement action in the private rental sector. . However, councils also have the power to take enforcement action against housing associations, such as the one that rented the Ishak family’s moldy flat.
Professor David Ormandy, who coordinated the project that developed the original scoring system, which was rolled out in 2006, said the draft guidelines excused “poor housing” and would lead to more people getting sick” and, in some cases, even die”.
“As we have seen this week, poor housing can kill. But instead of strengthening the enforcement system, these new guidelines open the door to blaming people’s lifestyles for really serious problems,” he said.
The 175-page document says homes should be heated and ventilated to remove moisture produced by cooking, bathing and drying clothes, but notes that residents “may choose not to use” heating, fans extraction and windows. “Occupants may also dry clothes on radiators without taking steps to remove moisture-laden air. Evaluators should consider how these and other occupant behaviors contribute to humidity and high levels of humidity in housing,” the revised guidance adds.
This contrasts with current guidance, which says landlords have a responsibility to ensure accommodation is “capable of being safely and healthily occupied by a range of households with a range of lifestyles”.
Stephen Battersby, vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which represents council officers applying the scoring system, said the changes would put more families in the position of Awaab parents. “I fear the draft guidelines provide an even greater opportunity for landlords to blame tenants for unsafe housing conditions, such as dampness and mold,” he said.
The warnings come as new data reveals the extent of mold and dampness problems in UK housing stock. Around 450,000 homes in England alone are said to have condensation and mold problems, and figures provided exclusively to the Observer last week reveal a dramatic increase in complaints about the social housing sector.
Figures show that in the year to April 2022 the Housing Ombudsman – which deals with disputes relating to local authorities and social housing providers – received 3,530 complaints and inquiries about dampness , mold and leaks, compared to 1,993 the previous year. It formally investigated 456 cases, down from 195 the previous year. In 2021-2022, 42% of ombudsman cases with serious maladministration findings – signifying a repeated failure by the landlord to deal with the problem – were related to dampness and mould.
In one case in June, a woman said she had complained “hundreds” of times of damp, mold and bedbug infestations, and records show she had raised issues with her housing provider since 2017. The woman’s GP wrote to the housing provider because her “physical and mental health was impaired by her housing situation”. The case was referred to the Ombudsman, who found poor administration by the landlord in responding to reports of repairs and infestation, and serious maladministration in handling complaints. He was ordered to pay £1,000 in restitution by the mediator.
A spokesman for the Department of Upgrading, Housing and Communities said suggestions that the new scoring system would reduce protections for tenants were a misrepresentation and that the draft guidelines “clearly indicate that the ‘dampness and mold are problems with the buildings and not with the tenants’. “The Secretary of State has made it clear that landlords must be held accountable if they fail to provide safe and decent accommodation and the new scoring system will ensure that councils correctly assess the risks and take appropriate action to protect tenants. .”
In addition to moisture and mold, the system covers risks such as cold, falls and structural collapse. Inspectors will need to determine if residents are putting themselves at risk of falling by not using handrails or by being distracted by cellphones or rushing. The ceiling collapse, meanwhile, could be caused by improper use of shower curtains and “lack of caution when bathing”, according to the guidelines.
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