The death of a toddler living in social housing has brought the UK housing sector under renewed scrutiny this week. Awaab Ishak, who was just two years old, died “due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home” according to an inquest into the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Senior Coroner rightly said that this tragic event should serve as a ‘defining moment’ for local authorities and housing associations across the country. We would agree that this should be a watershed moment in how damp and mould is dealt with across social housing stock, but are also clear that the issues facing social housing providers (and therefore tenants) are broad, and that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.

Damp and mould is the most urgent issue at hand as it represents an immediate danger to public health, however to focus exclusively on this would be a mistake for social landlords. Some organisations are using the death of Awaab Ishak to promote their products and solutions to housing associations looking for a fast, effective fix to a public health and PR nightmare, if only things were that simple. At M-Four we know that there is a much broader view to be taken, and simply installing IoT-based sensors in homes, for example, is a far cry from addressing the systemic issues that impact the health and wellbeing of social housing tenants.

Social housing without empathy

In the 2021 Damp and Mould report from the Housing Ombudsman, titled ‘It’s Not Lifestyle’, Richard Blakeway is very clear that no landlords are exempt from learning more about how systems, processes, and inbuilt biases drive how complaints are dealt with, nor should the lessons learned pertain solely to the issue of damp and mould. Indeed, 56% of complaints made to the Housing Ombudsman from 2019-2021 resulted in findings of maladministration.

And in a recent example, Birmingham City Council has this week been ordered to pay £30,000 in compensation to a disabled man forced to live in unsuitable accommodation for eight years; the ombudsman observed in its report that the council had “found delays in the council completing suitability reviews”

In its report the Ombudsman recommended that “(No) landlord (is) exempt from this learning; Our view is that landlords should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould. This does not mean zero cases. But it does mean less fatalism. Fatalism that can sometimes result in a loss of empathy.”

That such fatalism exists is in itself a tragedy; that providers are attempting to circumnavigate these complex and difficult issues by simply offering a product or solution is compounding the effect and selling their clients short.

Investment without understanding is a costly mistake

The issues here are systemic and interlinked; we need leadership, we need effective policies and processes, a must act with empathy, and we must not hold a default position of ‘it’s their lifestyle’.

All social housing providers should now undertake a thorough investigation into the factors impacting their overall effectiveness as landlords; without gaining an understanding of the multitude of factors that lead to deaths such as Awaab’s, there is little point in investing in sensors to monitor humidity levels in homes. We are past the point of ticking a box and considering an issue closed; now is the time for a clear-eyed assessment, an opportunity to identify institutional failures and demand this situation needs to improve.

The aim of M-Four is to support public sector organisations which seek a better understanding of where they are excelling, failing, and where they fall somewhere in between, when you can measure something, you gain the ability to understand and fix it.

What is needed is a root and branch assessment of policies and procedures, we’ll work with our partners to audit, report compliance and then design a training programme and ongoing support to help staff provide a service that safeguards and improves the health and wellbeing of their tenants, this may then be supported by technology where appropriate.

Every social landlord we have worked with take their responsibility seriously, their teams are generally caring people who want to improve the communities in which they serve. However, they are also wise enough to understand that there are no quick, easy, or inexpensive solutions to such widespread and complex issues, but understand they must be tackled in order to protect housing tenants today, and maintain housing stock for the future.