“It’s not lifestyle”
Recommendations for damp and mould problems in social housing
The October 2021 report conducted by the Housing Ombudsman Service has changed the way landlords should deal with the effects of damp and mould in their housing stock.
This blog will focus on some of the key issues raised and how standards can be raised by landlords through implementing key recommendations.
Recent media coverage and living conditions documented on social media demonstrate that often damp and mould is not dealt with properly or in a timely manner by housing providers, with some tenants ‘slipping through the cracks’ and with issues not being addressed. The report details how a more serious approach should be taken by landlords, laying out a series of recommendations on how they can be more proactive, take responsibility, resolve issues and change the culture of the organisation to identify themes, trends and learning opportunities.
According to the English Housing Survey 3% of social sector homes had a condensation and mould problem, and 5% of homes lacked thermal comfort.
Combined with a cost of living crisis and rising fuel bills the issue of mould and dampness in tenanted properties will only be exacerbated in 2023.
The report of the English Housing Ombudsman into damp and mould emphasised the landlords responsibility to move away from blaming ‘lifestyle’ for condensation problems, and the need to work on a solution in a timely manner in collaboration with the tenant.
As part of the report they investigated 142 Landlords and 1595 complaints from residents. 56% of cases investigated resulted in findings of maladministration and 501 orders made to put something right. As part of these complaints £123,094.57 in compensation was ordered across 222 cases, with sums over £1,000 in 21 cases.
The Housing Ombudsman came up with 26 recommendations for landlords to prevent issues arising, including applying a zero tolerance approach to damp and mould interventions.
The first section is around the way landlords change from being reactive to proactive. The main themes are implementing changes to the overall framework for dealing with damp, looking at their systems and whether they are capable of reporting and processing complaints while identifying properties that are needing future regeneration.
The second section of recommendations focuses on moving away from inferring blame on tenants to landlords taking responsibility for damp and mould.
Landlords should review, alongside residents, their initial response to reports of damp and mould to ensure they avoid automatically apportioning blame or using language that leaves residents feeling blamed.
Residents should not be blamed for drying their laundry indoors if there is no space for a tumble dryer, or if they do not have space outside for a washing line. This means using terms such as ‘lifestyle’, as a consequence of limited choices, should be banished.’
Early signs of dampness should be reported with urgency and landlords should ensure all staff can identify damp and mould issues. Landlords should identify and resolve any skill gaps they may have, ensuring their staff and contractors have the ability to properly diagnose and respond to reports of damp and mould. This can include CPD seminars, external training qualifications, networks to share best practice and technical expertise.
Landlords should also identify where an ‘independent’ and ‘qualified surveyor’ should be used, sharing the outcomes of surveys with residents to help them understand the findings and be clear on next steps.
It is essential that landlords should then act on accepted survey recommendations in a timely manner. The recommendation also suggests that when significant work is required and carried out, smaller remedial works such as mould cleaning and anti-mould paint that will improve the resident’s living environment are still completed.
The third section details how landlords should identify claims and the best way to resolve issues through improving complaints processes and using independent surveyors. For damp surveys in affected properties ‘landlords should identify where an independent, mutually agreed and suitably qualified surveyor should be used.” The recommendations in the report should then be accepted in a timely manner.
Finally the Landlord should use complaints to develop a learning culture, using complaints data to identify themes and trends that can be used as learning opportunities in the future. More empathy should be used when dealing with complaints and reflected throughout the complaint process.
This report will have profound implications for Landlords, with the very structure on how they deal with damp and mould in tenanted houses needing to be reviewed and updated.
Damp and mould can be a ‘complex and frustrating’ issue for both landlords and residents but the report highlighted two key issues. These are over reliance on residents to report problems, and the lack of overall responsibility by the landlord that ensures complaints are dealt with and resolved.
It is crucial that where issues are reported there is someone who is accountable for the resolution of the matter to prevent residents being passed between the landlord and its contractors.
The Housing Ombudsman Service released a follow up in February 2023 highlighting how landlords have been revising their approach to damp and condensation. 40 landlords were contacted about the report, with 26 responding. Of those who responded, they found the report to be a useful intervention, however financial implications and restraints were mentioned as a potential barrier to change.
35% of the landlords sampled now have a specific damp and mould policy with streamlined processes for identifying and responding to damp and mould reports. The Housing Ombudsman found evidence of good practice carried out by Landlords, however many reports had replaced ‘lifestyle’ with euphemisms that effectively mean the same.
Many Landlords had not heard of the original report, felt it was not relevant to them or felt they already complied (41% replied they had made no changes to their procedures). Changes to the culture of indifference are therefore needed to prevent this issue continuing.
It is also worth noting that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Ombudsman have yet to publish new guidance. However, from speaking with Scottish Housing Associations, Peter Cox discovered that many are following the English guidance.