Coroner calls death of Awaab Ishak from black mould “a defining moment” for housing sector

The Housing Ombudsman has called for landlords to go “further and faster” on tenant complaints after a two-year-old boy died because of the condition of his housing association home. 

The coroner of the inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak said the case was “a defining moment” for the housing sector, and analysts said it could cause landlords to further divert investment into their existing stock, away from new build. 

Awaab Ishak -1

Awaab Ishak, courtesy of Farleys Solicitors, acting for his family

Gareth Swarbrick, boss of 12,000-home Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which owned the home where the boy lived, said it was a “wake-up call” for the sector. 

“We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home,” Swarbrick said. 

“We allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould. We must make sure this can never happen again.”

Housing secretary Michael Gove, who has summoned Swarbrick to the department to explain the body’s failings in the case, said it “beggared belief” that he was still in his job. “He is coming here in order to explain to me why it was that this tragedy was allowed to happen,” Mr Gove said.

The family of Awaab, who died shortly after his second birthday in December 2020, said they had told the housing association several times about the state of their flat and their son’s coughing fits could sometimes last three days. In a statement the family said they had “cried” and “pleaded” countless times in front of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing staff, but that “despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem.”

Joanne Kearsley, the coroner, concluded the two-year-old “died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment” and “action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken”.

The Housing Ombudsman said: “Landlords need to go further and faster, and to focus on the issues causing complaints, be more proactive and learn from them.” 

It highlighted it had urged landlords to address damp and mould as a higher priority in its report Spotlight on damp and mould: It’s not about lifestyle last year. 

The Ombudsman also called for the Decent Homes standard to have “more teeth” and make progress with improving damp and mould issues, as it had with issues such as gas safety and legionella. 

Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “Building new social homes is a critically important part of the work that social landlords do in helping to meet housing need.

“But tenant and resident safety is of paramount importance and non-negotiable. The safety and decency of existing homes is critical and must not be compromised.”

The Regulator of Social Housing said: “The coroner’s report into Awaab Ishak’s death will offer important lessons for all social housing landlords.

“We see through our regulation that the critical difference between landlords who provide good services and safe, decent homes and those that don’t is often whether they listen to tenants and really hear what they have to say.”

Alastair Stewart, analyst at Progressive Research, predicted the case would lead to “urgent action for insulation and, critically, ventilation improvements in the social housing sector, and somewhat more slow-burn pressures for the existing private rental stock”.

He said: “This could deplete other social housing repair and maintenance work as well as new development, since councils and housing associations face post-Grenfell recladding and financial pressures.”