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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

Father of boy killed by mould in flat urges tenants with similar issue to ‘get out’

The father of Awaab Ishak, the two-year-old who died because of mould in a social housing flat, has pleaded with tenants to “waste no time” in complaining and to simply “get out” if they find themselves exposed to similar problems.

Speaking in his first national newspaper interview since Awaab died, aged two, in December 2020 as a result of untreated mould in their one-bedroom social housing flat in Rochdale, Faisal Abdullah, 31, also called on the government to introduce strict deadlines for landlords to tackle mould in the private rented sector as well as in social housing – an extension of the so-called Awaab’s law, which is due to come into effect for social housing.

The coroner described Awaab Ishak as an ‘engaging, lively, endearing’ boy.
The coroner described Awaab Ishak as an ‘engaging, lively, endearing’ boy. Photograph: Family/PA

“I can’t emphasise enough, for those tenants who find themselves in similar situations, not to waste time,” he said through a translator. “Please, please, please … make sure you knock at the right doors,” he said in an interview in Manchester.

“Even if it means getting out of the accommodation, please do so, because if you’ve got children and it takes longer to find a remedy that will be at the expense of the health of the children or you as an adult.”

Asked if he wished his family had got out, he said: “Absolutely.” Growing up in the arid Sudanese region of Darfur, he was unfamiliar with mould and damp, he said. When Awaab became ill he wasn’t certain whether it was the mould causing it.

Awaab would have turned five next month, but died after living his whole life alongside extensive black mould in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom of the family’s poorly ventilated home on the Freehold estate run by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), a social housing landlord.

His death sparked national outrage after it emerged his father had first complained about the mould in 2017 and health experts warned the landlord of the risk to Awaab. RBH did nothing to fix the problem. He died on 21 December 2020 at the Royal Oldham hospital from “a severe respiratory condition due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home”, the coroner ruled. The pathologist had found fungus in his blood and lungs.

It then emerged other homes on the estate were in an even worse state and staff at RBH had believed mould was “acceptable” and that “most of [the] residents were refugees and they are lucky they have [a] roof over head”.

The Freehold estate run by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.
The Freehold estate run by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The landlord routinely treated tenants in “dismissive, inappropriate or unsympathetic ways”, and Awaab’s family, who came to the UK from Sudan initially in 2016, were subject to “lazy assumptions”, according to an investigation by the housing ombudsman. RBH staff put the mould down to the family’s “lifestyle choices” including “boiling food in pans on the stove” and “bucket bathing”.

After the coroner’s verdict in November 2022, Awaab’s parents told RBH in a statement: “Stop discriminating. Stop being racist. Stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers.”

Abdullah said on Thursday: “As a family we encountered many problems going back and forth with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing trying to get some resolution to the ongoing problem. We didn’t get that. We were desperate to get a solution and we weren’t able to do that.

“It was a very bad feeling being in that situation. They were very passive. They weren’t actually serious about finding a resolution to the problem.”

He said he was “convinced there was some racism” in the way the landlord responded but was “very careful” about what he said because he was “at their mercy”.

“I knew that I couldn’t accuse them of discrimination as these were the people who could help me,” he said. “If I started being aggressive and accusing them of discrimination and racism I was worried that they wouldn’t act to find a solution to my problem.”

The coroner said the death of the “engaging, lively, endearing” boy should be “a defining moment” for England’s social housing sector which rents homes to 4 million households. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, agreed to introduce Awaab’s law as part of post-Grenfell changes to social housing. It will set time limits for social landlords to tackle disrepair, but a consultation on the detail has yet to happen.

Abdullah said he wants that extended to private rented housing, where damp and mould are an even bigger problem.

“I am grateful for the response from all these people and from Michael Gove as well,” he said. “There is Awaab’s law in the UK. It can’t protect me now, but more importantly it would protect others in a similar situation. In that respect we are quite happy and quite content with people’s response.”

He urged landlords to “pay great attention to accommodations affected by mould and condensation, not only for the adults … but mainly the children.

“Landlords should be serious about inspecting the accommodation and be really serious and prompt in resolving the issues rather than letting things fester and for things to happen like what happened to my son,” he said.

He said he now lives in an “incomparably” better home with his wife, Aisha Amin, also from Sudan, and two young children.

Faisal Abdullah, 31, pictured recently with his wife, Aisha Amin, 30, and their children Fatima, two and Baraa, five months.
Faisal Abdullah, 31, pictured recently with his wife, Aisha Amin, 30, and their children Fatima, two and Baraa, five months. Photograph: Supplied

His decision to speak out came on Thursday amid a rising number of complaints about damp and mould in social housing across England. The housing ombudsman dealt with more than 5,000 complaints in 2022-23, with landlords commonly blaming residents’ lifestyles.

After initially staying on, RBH’s chief executive, Gareth Swarbrick, was sacked, and the chair, Alison Tumilty, resigned a month later. Gove started publicly “shaming” failing social landlords for “letting people suffer in disgraceful conditions while refusing to listen to complaints”. He also started blocking funding to housing providers breaching consumer standards, including RBH.

Abdullah had reported mould in the family’s home as early as 2017, made several complaints to the landlord and requested rehousing. He was advised to “paint over it”, which he repeatedly tried to do. In December 2018, after Amin had joined him from Sudan, Awaab was born into a mouldy home. He was often at the GP with a runny nose, cough and respiratory tract infection.

In June 2020 the family instructed a solicitor to make a disrepair claim because of the mould and the following month they again complained to RBH. A health visitor warned the landlord of the risk to Awaab’s health. But RBH’s policy then was to not progress repairs without the agreement of the solicitors involved in the claim.

The coroner said the home was “not equipped for normal day-to-day living activities”.

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