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Housing

‘I’ve asked for a dehumidifier for Christmas’: The renters living with damp and mould

The tragic death of Awaab Ishak has thrown the issue of damp and mould into the spotlight. We spoke to tenants across the country about living with the issue

The story of Awaab Ishak, the Rochdale toddler who died after living in a home infested with damp and mould, has angered and moved renters around the country.

Damp and mould is a common problem affecting around 941,000 homes in England, according to the English Housing Survey.

damp and mould
The death of Awaab Ishak following exposure to mould at his home in Rochdale has put the issue back in the spotlight. Image: Family handout

It’s the responsibility of landlords to make sure a home is fit for human habitation but renters will be familiar with the advice to “paint over it” or to ensure they open windows when cooking, drying clothes or having a shower.

The Big Issue spoke to people living with damp and mould to see how the situation and Awaab’s tragic story has affected them.

“A decent humidifier is top of my Christmas list”

Eleanor Crabb, 25, is struggling so much with damp and mould in her one-bedroom flat that she’s hoping Christmas will bring the solution she can’t get from her landlord.

She’s forking out £945 a month for the private rented flat she shares with her boyfriend in Wokingham, Berkshire, but she’s paying out on top of that to tackle damp and mould in the property.

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Crabb estimated she is spending more on goods to absorb damp and mould in the flat than she is on broadband, paying around £40 to keep damp out of her clothes.

“We spend like £40 a month just buying absorbing stuff from Robert Dyas every couple of weeks,” said Crabb. “They must almost know me by name because I’m constantly going in and buying things. I’ve got a really small dehumidifier which just fills up really quickly.

“It’s just impossible and they [the landlord] refuse to help. I’ve chased them up to ask if the landlord would consider providing a dehumidifier. I’ve had two different property managers say to me: ‘It’s really difficult that you’ve got a landlord who just doesn’t want to pay for anything’.”

Damp and mould is a problem plenty of private renters come up against. Housing charity Shelter said 1,700 private renters sought help this summer and 940 of those complaints were down to poor conditions including damp and mould, broken appliances and other safety hazards.

Crabb, who works in media relations, says she has encountered damp and mould at every property she has rented over the last three years and puts the blame down to poor ventilation.

Her current property has particularly significant problems and she is hoping her family can help her manage the situation after Christmas.

Eleanor Crabb damp and mould
The mould at Eleanor Crabb’s home. Image: Supplied

“Any room that borders on that front wall will get damp,” said Crabb. “I actually had a picture hanging for a few months and then it dropped off, it literally fell off the wall. I thought that was strange. But it was so damp that the hook holding the picture peeled off. It was green and mouldy too because it was on this wall.

“A decent humidifier is at the top of my Christmas list. My boyfriend’s mum said as a Christmas treat she might take us all to the theatre. And I was like: ‘Actually there’s no point in going if I’ve got nothing to wear because it’s all damp’.  Honestly I’d just rather have the dehumidifier to be honest, I felt bad saying that.”

Crabb had contacted her local council’s environmental health department for help on Tuesday when the inquest of Awaab Ishak concluded.

She told The Big Issue that it was no surprise to see a family living with damp and mould while their complaints were ignored.

“They really make you feel like it’s your fault. When you’re told what to do I’m thinking: okay well I can’t get the windows open because it’s bloody freezing, I can’t use the tumble dryer all the time as it’s really expensive and I can’t put the heating on because it’s really expensive too. So when I saw that figure I thought: ‘What? It’s not me’.”

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“You can feel it in here as soon as you walk in”

Dawn Page told The Big Issue how she and her 12-year-old daughter Jaycie were living in a social housing flat in Mitcham, south London, with sewage running down the walls last year.

That meant she spent parts of last winter in a hotel, including last Christmas.

Work on Page property has displaced her this year too and she has even spent time sleeping in her car through the summer, including when record-breaking temperatures hit the English capital.

Now the 51-year-old has been back in her flat since September while work is ongoing to fix the issues at the property she has called home for 22 years.

Former carer Page told The Big Issue living in these conditions is impacting on her health. She insisted she has been on courses of steroids and antibiotics to help her with her breathing in the property.

“I’ve got mould coming back already, my walls are soaking wet and I’ve got environmental health coming around to check the walls,” said Page.

“I’ve got COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and I’ve had four lots of rescue packs already in the three months since I’ve been back because my breathing has been so bad.

“You can feel it in here as soon as you walk in. I’ve been buying things to absorb the moisture and putting them in every room but there’s so much moisture in this property.”

Page said the problems with her home have sparked fears for her daughter’s health.

“I don’t want her to end up like I am,” she added. “I was hoping my chest would be getting better but it’s just getting worse living with it.

“They try and tell you that it’s the way you’re living. It’s washing. It’s this and that, it’s not.”

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“I had to take my son to the doctors quite a few times. They asked: does he have asthma?”

A single mum fleeing domestic abuse told The Big Issue damp and mould affected her three-year-old son so much that doctors thought he suffered from asthma.

The 31-year-old, who cannot be named for the safety of her and her son, moved into temporary accommodation in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in June last year after leaving a women’s refuge.

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The property was in a state of disrepair with damp and mould around the window frames, damaged heaters and silverfish in rotten wooden cupboards, she said.

damp and mould
Mould at the temporary home was so bad that it left the single mum’s son with breathing problems. Image: Supplied

The mum, who is on a low income and was living with anxiety, depression and PTSD at the time, said she could not afford repairs herself and feared for her son’s safety before the pair moved out of the property in April.

“I have OCD so when I went in there I pulled everything out myself, bleached it and cleaned it all and it didn’t make any difference,” she said.

“I even had workmen coming around saying: ‘Why are you getting all the repairs done in here and making it all nice? Because whoever comes in after is basically going to trash it’.

“Me and my son had to live there and it was disgusting.”

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The single mum claimed she was offered another property that was “riddled with mould” but had been “whitewashed”. She insisted neighbours told her the previous tenants had moved out of the alternative property because of how the mould was affecting the children who lived there.

damp and mould
It was the same story for the single mum at an alternative property with mould painted over in what would have been her son’s bedroom. Image: Supplied

In the meantime, living in her temporary home was making her son ill and he was prescribed an inhaler to help with his breathing.

“I had to take my son to the doctors quite a few times as he had a cough and he was quite chesty,” she added. “They said: ‘Does he have asthma?’ I told them, no, not as far as I know. He’s never had it before.

“He kept coughing and the flat was so cold. I wrapped him up in as many layers as I could and then I got thermal blankets as well. But there was still cold coming in through the windows  because there were gaps and a breeze coming through. It was impossible.

“It upset me. I felt like such a crappy mum. I felt like a failure. And then I felt unfair that my son was getting ill as a result of my choice of partner.”

The pair now live in a permanent home without damp and mould.

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