Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about landlords not taking the problem of damp and mould seriously. In fact, the problem is widespread.
In the early 2000s, we rented a flat from a housing association in west London. It was a tiny one-bedroom flat — one of several located in the roof of a converted old Victorian house, broken up into multiple self-contained dwellings.
Because we were in the roof — angled walls on one side, a flat roof above us, and velux windows — it was freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. Through the winter, heating came from electric storage heaters and extra jumpers.
At one point, three years into our marriage, we started noticing damp and mould through the winter. We noted that it was worst after rain. We were convinced that there was a leak in the roof, which had soaked down into the cavity between the roof felt and plasterboard.
However, each time the housing inspector came to visit, he told us the problem was caused by us drying our laundry in the flat. With a kitchen and bathroom as small as we had, there was no room for a tumble drier, and even if we had had a garden of our own, there was no way we could dry our clothes outside in winter.
Anyway, that was his diagnosis, so he went away content that the damp and mould in our flat had been caused by the tenants. His prescription for the problem was telling us to leave our windows open through the winter. A sensible course of action in an already-freezing flat.
Our hypothesis would eventually prove to be correct, however, to spectacular effect. It was during a very wet evening in spring, while my father was visiting, during one of his business trips to London. My wife had just finished filling his stomach with her finest cooking when, on returning to the kitchen, she noticed a large bulge in the ceiling.
Just after she had served him Turkish coffee, the bulge in the roof began to drip. Then the drip became a steady stream of water, and then a flood, as the cavity between the roof felt and the plasterboard began to empty of its accumulated reservoir of rainwater, stored all winter long, quickly refilling the kitchen bin hastily repurposed as a bucket each time it was emptied.
That was the evening my father whispered in our ears: “Isn’t it time you two started looking for a house of your own?”
After that flood, the housing association did finally acknowledge that we had a leaking roof, which was probably the primary cause of the damp and mould in our flat. Our kitchen ceiling received emergency repairs soon afterwards and a temporary fix was made to the roof above us. Eventually all of the in-roof flats would be fully renovated, the roof completely replaced, but by then we had moved out, buying a house of our own twenty miles away.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that housing associations are failing their tenants, sometimes to devastating effect. This is in fact the norm. As a student, I rented the grottiest of flats from a church housing association opposite King’s Cross station. When I moved in, the kitchens were filthy, thick with grease, grime and fluff, the flats infested with mice.
Could we convince the housing association to do anything about it? Only in so much that they gave me a job as cleaner, deducting a slither of my rent in return! Eventually, they sold that building to property developers, for which they would have made a handsome profit. Today, my old flat has been subsumed by the upmarket Landmark Lighthouse office space.
Let’s hope the housing association reinvested that income into improving their housing stock for their remaining tenants. I hope so, because we really were living in squalor back then. And so, it seems, some still are. Some housing associations really need to up their game, if they are to avert further tragedies.