The home where Awaab Ishak died still has problems with damp and mould more than two years after his “tragic and preventable” death.
A new report into Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) paints a “disturbing picture” of life on the estate where the toddler died after being exposed to extensive mould in his family’s flat.
RBH has confirmed to Sky News that the flat – which is now home to a new tenant – still contains black mould, although it is not as prevalent as when the Ishak family lived there.
The latest investigation into the tragedy found a culture where staff dismissed residents out of hand, believing they knew better.
RBH employees held “prejudices and lazy assumptions” about asylum seekers and refugees, that left them struggling with inadequate – and sometimes dangerous – housing, according to the Housing Ombudsman.
One staff member said when residents complained about the mould and living conditions, a manager told her because “most of the residents are refugees” they “were lucky to have [a] roof over head”.
‘Disgusting’ attitudes on display
Richard Blakeway, from the Housing Ombudsman, said the attitudes on display were “frankly, disgusting”.
While RBH did conduct an independent review following Awaab’s death, this was done entirely by telephone because of the pandemic. It failed to identify the extensive damp and mould – present in 80% of homes – that a subsequent survey in 2022 found throughout the estate.
Of the 380 properties surveyed, 12 were branded as Category 1 hazards.
The ombudsman said it is inevitable there are more residents out there living with “serious mould” and RBH has been given a three-month deadline to make progress on the failures outlined in the report.
Yvonne Arrowsmith, RBH Interim Chief Executive, said the organisation was not going to argue with the contents of the report.
Her predecessor, Gareth Swarbrick, was sacked in the wake of Awaab’s death while RBH was stripped of new funding and downgraded to “non-compliant” by the regulator for failing to act.
“We are really sorry to any residents that have not been treated with respect, that haven’t felt their voice has been heard. Because that’s just not acceptable,” she told Sky News.
The report, she said, was “painful” and “uncomfortable” to read, but was also fairly “balanced”, with the ombudsman recognising where it was attempting to improve.
RBH has visited 5,000 properties since December to check for problems and is doing a 100% stock condition survey this year.
But Ms Arrowsmith denied the organisation is structurally racist, and said: “It was poor customer service”.
Awaab’s family wrongly blamed
When mould issues were first reported by Awaab’s family, RBH focussed entirely on how his parents were using the home.
Previously, the inquest heard evidence from staff that the family had a “lifestyle of boiling food in pans on the stove” and assumptions had been made, on the basis of seeing a bucket, that the family practiced ritual bathing.
This assumption was based entirely on a member of staff’s “previous, irrelevant” interactions with other people in the same block of flats.
Mr Blakeway said the initial response by RBH to Awaab’s death was “inadequate” and “simply wrong”.
“There were misplaced views and derogatory comments about the family and the circumstances in which the family found themselves,” he said.
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The ombudsman also found RBH lost most of its email data in 2020. This destroyed an audit trail for cases wrongly handled by email in the years previously, including that of Awaab’s family.
‘They blamed us for breathing too much’
The dismissive language was not restricted to just Awaab’s family either.
One tenant, who lives in a three-bedroom house managed by RBH, told Sky News most of the rooms are “useless” because of damp and mould.
Richard Kalanyos has a small child around Awaab’s age and first complained to his landlord two years ago about the problem.
“The bed has mould everywhere, the walls, around the window area too,” he said.
“Night or day, there’s always moisture. We heat the rooms a lot, losing money by heating, but it’s just too much.”
He said RBH sent someone to investigate, but they blamed him for having “too many people” in the property.
“They blamed us for breathing too much,” he said.
He continued: “But every day we leave the windows open.
“I was so angry, but what can I do? It was hopeless to try and get help.”
‘RBH threw out my parent’s ashes’
Residents were often accused of using mould issues to try and get a bigger property, the ombudsman report found.
In one 2021 case, an RBH staff member admitted there was a “small amount of black mould in the property” but blamed it on the people living there.
In an internal email, sent after the inspection, they wrote: “There are three children and two adults living in the two bed home. So, that is the cause of the problem. Their frustration is that they want a bigger home and cant [sic] get one.”
And problems went even beyond RBH’s inability to deal with mould.
In another instance, a resident was given the wrong end date for her tenancy. RBH realised this but did not contact her to correct it. The woman had partially moved out and when she returned to finish getting her belongings she found the landlord had changed the locks.
They had also thrown away her belongings – including her parent’s ashes.
Mr Blakeway said the ombudsman is seeing “repeated failure” from a number of landlords, but the report should be a wake-up call, both for RBH and the housing sector as a whole.