Home Health I have taken neglected social housing tenants to hospital. The death of...

I have taken neglected social housing tenants to hospital. The death of a two-year-old does not surprise me |

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak as a direct result of living in a home covered in damp and black mould shocked the country last week. His tragic story is a damning indictment of the state of housing and, in particular, social housing in the UK.

An innocent death because of neglect by a landlord is something I and others have been campaigning to avoid. Over the last 18 months, I’ve witnessed first hand thousands of social housing tenants living in similar conditions of squalor to Awaab’s family. Some have been battling against their landlords for decades to get them to fulfil their contractual health and safety duties. Residents have to suffer squalid, uninhabitable living conditions, yet their complaints are ignored and they are still required to pay rent.

Occasionally, I have had to take people injured in their own homes to A&E, once when a ceiling partially collapsed on top of a tenant while they were cooking. Yes, they had previously complained to their landlord about cracks in the ceiling but nothing was done until it caved in.

Time and time again, I’ve been shown proof by people that they follow complaints procedures and ask for help but are ignored at numerous levels. Sometimes, after getting nowhere with landlords, they are ignored by their MPs too or suffer long waiting times when they go to the ombudsman or regulator. Repeatedly, I have questioned the validity of our regulatory bodies within the social housing sector. The housing ombudsman service should change for the better if the social housing regulation bill, currently progressing through parliament, is approved. But the ombudsman is funded by landlords, which raises questions over whether bad ones will be held to account.

The response by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) to Awaab’s death was nothing short of insulting. It defined the tragedy as a mere “learning experience”, yet it cost Awaab’s parents the life of their son.

“Lessons learned” is a hollow term. They should have been learned on the night 72 innocent people died in Grenfell Tower. They should have been learned when the remains of Sheila Seleoane were found on her sofa in her Peabody flat in London two and a half years after she died. They should have been learned after one-year-old Exodus Eyob fell out of his Leeds tower block window to his death. A window that was faulty, as his mum had told the council many times (although the cause of death has not yet been confirmed). How many more lessons need to be learned and lives taken before the sector wakes up and cares?

The court heard how Awaab’s health visitor sent a letter to RBH in July 2020, supporting a request for the family to move because of the damp and mould. She expressed her concern over the child living in the flat and the health issues that the mould could cause him. I’ve been told by tenants many times that head teachers, doctors and social workers, among others, have written on their behalf to a landlord about the condition of their homes. Many don’t even receive an acknowledgment of their letter, which is alarming, given the hundreds of residents I alone have spoken to who have requested the support of a professional. If the landlord had listened to the requests of Awaab’s health representative, he might have seen his third birthday and beyond.

It’s right that the chief executive of RBH was sacked yesterday. What we need now is a criminal investigation into what happened to provide justice for Awaab’s family and set an example to landlords across the country.

The question of whether asylum seekers have exacerbated or caused the social housing crisis is redundant. More than 1.25 million people are waiting for a home and there is limited stock. This can be linked to the failures of Mrs Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, along with that of consecutive governments to prioritise social housing and meet building targets, resulting in a disaster that could have been predicted decades ago. Now we see people housed in obscene conditions or living for years, possibly decades, in unacceptable temporary accommodation or hotels until a social home becomes available.

Awaab’s family have to try to rebuild their lives without their son or brother. The housing sector needs to rebuild a broken system rooted in prejudice and neglect to ensure that a death of this nature never happens again. Apologies or statements of lessons learned will never compensate for the loss of an innocent life but are often the default response when tragedies occur. Tenants are sick and tired of apologies. And I am tired of apologies from sector bosses. We want action.

Kwajo Tweneboa is the presenter of Help! My Home Is Disgusting on Channel 4

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