The avoidable death of a toddler due to poor housing conditions is chilling in itself; the details emerging from the inquest ruling on two-year-old Awaab Ishak are appalling, sickening, but beyond that, demand collective action.
The boy’s father, Faisal Abdullah, first reported the mould problems to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) in 2017. They told him to paint over it. Abdullah raised the problem repeatedly over the subsequent three years, and the family were “crying out for help”, their lawyer said. As Awaab’s health deteriorated, a health visitor wrote twice to RBH, and was similarly disregarded.
The inquest heard that staff at RBH assumed the family were carrying out “ritual bathing” involving a “bucket” which was leading to excess water on the bathroom floor. This information was based on assumption alone, not from asking the family if this was the case. Abdullah and his wife arrived as refugees from Sudan and the unfounded beliefs about how they were living in their home seemed to be based on their race and the fact that they were refugees.
This case echoes many of the themes coming out of the Grenfell inquiry. In closing statements from Sadiq Khan submitted by Anne Studd KC, “institutionalised discrimination” in the relationships between Kensington and Chelsea council, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and the residents. Of those who died in the fire, 41% were disabled; many had been housed on higher floors without any plans for their escape in an emergency . They were “treated as though their lives are inferior”. The submission describes “institutional indifference to the residents”, a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”, a primary focus on cost saving at the expense of tenants’ safety, a culture in which tenants were made to feel like “second-class citizens, a nuisance and/ or troublemakers”.
Dive into any detail of the relationship between many councils, housing associations and tenants and the same pattern seems to emerge: a complete lack of democratic accountability. Councils and housing associations or tenant management organisations (TMOs) are in a constant, complicated dance where they alternate between blaming and protecting one another, maintaining their unity around a few core principles: that whatever it is social tenants are getting, they only barely deserve; what they’re asking for can wait; whatever they’re complaining about, how dare they?
Private renters have problems, too, of course, and landlords have their own rapacious behaviours. But there has been a distinct and fundamental breakdown in the way the state conceives its housing duties, so that its employees, as per the Grenfell submission above, “see their role to act as gatekeepers for the meagre service provision available, rather than as public servants whose role it is to act in the public interest”.
Of course austerity is a major factor. Shelter’s analysis showed recently that there are 1.2m households on social housing waiting lists in England; last year 6,051 new homes for social rent were built. We’ve had 12 years of a government not even pretending to hold housing as one of its core responsibilities. They have never built enough new homes. In the spending period from 2011 to 2014, the amount allocated to housing benefit was nearly 20 times that allocated to new housing. As that catches up with them in an ever growing housing benefit bill, their answer is greater parsimony with tenants, rather than any serious attempt to address the lack of supply. To see Michael Gove fulminating about Awaab’s death, as if his own government had nothing to do with the creation of a housing underclass, is enraging.
Local authority employees are trapped between their statutory duty to prevent homelessness and the chronic insufficiency of their housing stock. This impotence extinguishes morale and with it, empathy and creativity. But in tandem, it’s a story about outsourcing. The deals between councils, developers and housing associations are rarely transparent, and accountability gets lost in the cracks. Tenants aren’t thought of as “proper customers” by the developers and TMOs, nor are they considered proper, equal citizens by councils, which can hide behind the complex consortiums to which they outsource, and cite commercial confidentiality to avoid legitimate scrutiny.
The perception of housing associations as benign, charitable organisations, helping those who can’t help themselves, needs an update; it flatters some housing associations to the point of surrealism, and strips tenants of dignity. That alone won’t solve the deficit, though, which is one not just of houses but of democracy. Social housing provision must be solely, unambiguously in the hands of people you can vote for: otherwise, as we’ve seen so often, they treat you as if, in the act of needing it, you are marginal to society.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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