Awaab Ishak’s death shed light on a social housing scandal. Now we have a brief chance to fix it
Christian Weaver / The Guardian:
Awaab Ishak’s parents should be preparing for their son’s fourth birthday. Instead, they’re mourning. Awaab died in 2020, aged only two, after prolonged exposure to mould in the house his parents rented from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), a housing association. His story has been leading the news over the past week. As the barrister who acted for Ishak’s family, I’ve seen the devastation they have endured.
Prior to the inquest into Awaab’s death, RBH’s line was clear. They said there was mould in the property, but the tenants had caused it with their lifestyle and “ritual bathing” habits. They also said that his family should have taken action to control the damp and mould but failed to do so. As the inquest unfolded, it was clear this line would not – and could not – stick.
In finally conceding that they bore some responsibility for the mould, RBH provided the court with a document of admissions. They admitted that Awaab’s parents had reported mould from as early as 2017 and had contacted them on numerous occasions about the issue right until Awaab’s death. They admitted that after their inspection of the property on 14 July 2020, when mould was observed, remedial works should have taken place. They admitted that it was inappropriate for them to have to shifted the blame on to the lifestyle of Awaab and his parents (workers from RBH never asked his family about whether such “ritual bathing” took place; Awaab’s father has always said it did not, insisting in the inquest that he would use a shower to wash).
The fact that it took the pressure of an inquest for RBH to make these admissions, despite the fact Awaab died two years ago, speaks volumes. RBH’s failure to act was made even more deplorable – legally and morally – given the following three points, which were established when I questioned the witnesses. First, the house met the definition of being “unfit for human habitation” when it was inspected on 14 July 2020. Second, on 9 July 2020, shortly before the RBH inspection took place, RBH received a letter from the family’s NHS health visitor stating that she had been to the property and was concerned that the mould could affect Awaab’s health. And finally, the mould was so severe that only professional intervention could deal with it. In other words, the family were dependent on the landlord to do something about it.
Awaab’s parents powerlessly observed the deterioration of their child’s health. There was nothing they could do. The coroner and expert witnesses made it clear that there was no evidence that the family’s lifestyle was the cause of the excessive and unacceptably high amounts of mould in the home.
Awaab’s home was not even the worst on the estate. One RBH member likened the mould in some other properties as being “like black slime on the walls”. Other RBH residents have told the BBC that their homes are in conditions similar to the images we have seen of Awaab’s. Mould does not become so severe that it can be likened to black slime overnight. Given that no remedial works took place in Awaab’s home between the date of inspection in July and his death, one has to question whether RBH would ever have rectified the issues in Awaab’s family’s home.
The coroner was right to call this a “defining moment”. Grenfell Tower, however, has shown that moments that should be defining are often not. Politicians typically only act when public pressure necessitates it. All of us, whether we live in social housing or not, must continue to apply pressure on the government. The attitudes and practices of many social housing landlords, and the conditions of their properties, must improve.