Awaab Ishak: Rochdale Housing blamed family for mould in home, dismissed residents’ complaints - report
The report also found that the housing association displayed ‘unacceptable’ attitudes towards refugees, with managers claiming they were ‘lucky to have a roof over their heads’.
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The housing association responsible for the mould-infested flat which contributed to the tragic death of 2-year-old Awaab Ishak blamed the property’s poor conditions on the family’s lifestyle, a damning report has found.
An investigation by England’s Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway, which was commissioned after Awaab died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould, found that the toddler’s family were “not seen at all” by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) - despite them making multiple complaints about the state of their home and even pursuing legal action. The report concluded that this treatment was “based on lazy assumptions as to who they were and how they lived”.
It also found that RBH treated its tenants in “dismissive, inappropriate, or unsympathetic ways”, and that the association’s bosses had a “wholly unacceptable” attitude towards asylum seekers. One former staff member said that refugee residents who complained about conditions were told by managers they were “lucky to have a roof over [their] heads.”
Meanwhile, a survey conducted in late 2022 as part of the report revealed that two years after Awaab’s death, 80% of the homes on the estate where he lived still suffer from damp and mould. RBH also confirmed to Sky News that despite it now being home to a new tenant, there is still black mould in the Ishak family’s former flat, although the association claimed it is not as prevalent as before.
As the report’s findings were published, Mr Blakeway urged all social landlords in England to undertake a “deep dive into their culture and whether they are living their social purpose”, as he warned that “it is highly unlikely this endemic behaviour of ‘othering’ is isolated.”
Awaab’s parents, Aisha and Faisal, who are originally from Sudan, had previously accused the landlord of racism - arguing that their treatment was a result of them not being from the UK and therefore being less aware of how the country’s systems work. “Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, we have a message for you,” they said.
“Stop discriminating. Stop being racist. Stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers. Stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation. We were left feeling absolutely worthless at the hands of RBH.”
When asked why so many of their flats suffered from damp and mould, RBH suggested the reason was down to “tenants’ lifestyles”. The examples staff members gave included: “not heating the property adequately, insufficient use of ventilation provided, drying clothes and cooking in the home, not venting tumble dryers, ritual bathing.”
In the case of Awaab, staff claimed his family had a “lifestyle of boiling food in pans on the stove” that contributed to poor conditions, and also made ill-informed assumptions that the family practised “ritual bathing” because they once saw a bucket.
At the inquest into the two-year-old’s death, it transpired that the flat’s bathroom fan had not been fully functioning for two years, and that the toilet was leaking because of defective plumbing. The home also had “no ventilation in the kitchen, no extractor fan, [and] no secure external drying options for clothing.”
“When mould issues were raised,” the report said, “the landlord focused entirely on the way Awaab’s parents were using their home without considering if there was anything about the home that was contributing to the problems.”
In his conclusion on the root cause of failure within RBH, Mr Blakeway said there was “a propensity to dismiss residents and their concerns out of hand, with staff believing that they knew better and that the expectations of their residents were unreasonable.”
He added: “People’s lives and welfare depend on the landlord knowing who they are, what home they live in, and what has been done previously - this information must be reviewed regularly and updated through a tenancy audit or similar method.”
RBH said in a statement that it accepted the findings in the report, which were “sobering but not unexpected”. It stated: “There has been significant learning from the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, which highlighted key areas of concern within RBH. We have recognised that too often damp and mould was not seen as a serious issue and was attributed to a resident’s lifestyle.”
“The report also highlights concerns with the way in which residents were treated,” the statement continued. “Our residents have the right to be treated with respect and listened to and too often this wasn’t happening. We will put this right and have begun a culture shift programme across the organisation.”
In response to Awaab’s tragic death, ministers have proposed that landlords will have to investigate and fix damp and mould in social housing within strict time limits under what would be known as Awaab’s Law. Housing and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove also last year stripped RBH of its £1 million funding from the Affordable Homes Programme - and said it will not provide any new funding until it can prove it is a responsible landlord.