Thousands of renters could be blamed for toxic black mold and other potentially fatal hazards under a government overhaul of the housing enforcement system.
Leaked documents I have seen observer It indicates that councils inspecting rental properties will be formally directed to examine the behavior of residents when deciding whether to take action against landlords for dangerous conditions.
Under the updated Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), environmental health inspectors will be required to look at detailed ‘behavioral factors’, such as whether residents are taking adequate steps to ensure their properties are heated and ventilated, including using heating, turning on extraction fans and opening windows. Other factors they will be asked to consider include whether people are exposing themselves to excessively low temperatures out of ignorance, a “stoic and often stoic attitude” toward coolness or a desire to “reduce carbon emissions,” adds guidance developed for the administration from Order upgrading housing and communities in September.
The government has vigorously denied that the revised guidance has relaxed protections for tenants. But experts said the new requirement for inspectors to look into “behavioral factors” threatened to open the door to blaming people’s lifestyles for “really serious problems”.
Details of the plans come days after an investigation found that the growth of toxic mold caused the death of a two-year-old boy, Awab Ishaq, who died in December 2020 from cardiac arrest stemming from respiratory problems. His father raised the issue repeatedly with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) but no action was taken.
North Manchester’s chief coroner, Joanne Kearsley, said that the ventilation in the one-bedroom flat was ineffective and that the family’s landlord had focused too much on “the cause of the mold being due to the parents’ lifestyle”.
The revised guidelines to councils, which have not yet been announced and are expected to come into effect by April 2023, will be used primarily by environmental health officials to assess the need for enforcement action in the private rental sector. However, the councils also have powers to take enforcement action against housing associations, such as the one that rented Isaac’s rotten family flat.
Professor David Ormandy, who coordinated the project that developed the original classification system, which was mooted in 2006, said the draft guidance justified “bad housing” and would make more people sick “and in some cases even die”.
“As we saw this week, unsanitary housing can kill. But rather than strengthening the enforcement system, this new guidance opens 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 from cooking, bathing and drying clothes, but notes that residents “may choose not to use” heating, extractor fans and windows. “Occupiers may also dry clothes on radiators without taking any action to remove moisture-laden air. Evaluators should consider how these and other occupant behaviors may contribute to any dampness and high levels of humidity in the dwelling,” adds the revised guidance.
This contrasts with current guidance, which states that landlords have a responsibility to ensure that dwellings are “capable of being occupied safely and healthily by a range of families with a variety of lifestyles”.
Stephen Battersby, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which represents council officials who implement the rating system, said the changes would put more families in the position of OAB parents. “I am concerned that the draft directive will provide more opportunity for landlords to blame tenants for dangerous housing conditions, such as damp and mold,” he said.
The warnings come as new data reveals the scale of mold and damp problems across Britain’s housing stock. Around 450,000 homes in England alone are thought to have problems with condensation and mold, figures provided exclusively to observer Last week revealed a significant rise in complaints about the social housing sector.
Figures show that in the year ending April 2022, the Housing Complaints Trustee – who deals with disputes involving local authorities and social housing providers – received 3,530 complaints and inquiries about damp, mold and leaks compared to 1,993 in the previous year. It officially investigated 456 cases, compared to 195 in the previous year. From 2021-2222, 42% of ombudsman cases with acute findings of mismanagement – indicative of repeated failure by the owner to address the issue – were related to damp and mold.
In one case in June, a woman said she had complained “hundreds” of times about dampness, mold and bed bugs, and records show she had been raising issues with her housing provider since 2017. The woman’s GP wrote to the housing provider because her “physical and mental health is detrimentally affected.” because of its residential status. He was referred to the Ombudsman, who found mismanagement by the owner of his response to reports of repair and injury, and extreme mismanagement of his grievance. The Ombudsman was ordered to pay £1,000 in damages.
A spokesperson for the Department of Settlement, Housing and Communities said that suggestions that the new rating system would reduce protections for tenants were misrepresented and that the draft guidance “shows dampness and obvious mold due to problems in the buildings rather than with the tenants”. “The Foreign Secretary has been clear that landlords must be held accountable if they do not provide safe and decent homes and the new rating system will ensure that councils appropriately assess risks and take appropriate action to protect tenants.”
In addition to moisture and mold, the system covers hazards including hail, falls, and structural collapses. Inspectors will be required to look at whether residents are putting themselves at risk of falling by not using the handrails or being distracted by their mobile phones or rushing. Ceiling collapse, meanwhile, could have been caused by improper use of shower curtains and “a lack of care when showering,” the directive says.