Who's Responsible For Getting Rid Of Black Mould In A Rental Property?
The tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak has thrust the issue of black mould in socially and privately rented properties and its health impact back into the spotlight in recent months.
At the inquest into Awaab’s death the coroner ruled that the toddler had died due to a respiratory condition brought on by “prolonged exposure to mould”.
Despite repeated pleas from Awaab’s parents to their landlords over a period of 5 years to fix the problem, the housing association was found to have done nothing.
Coroner Joanne Kearsley said: “The tragic death of Awaab will, and should, be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould.”
England’s housing ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, said landlords must make plans to tackle the “real risk of worsening damp and mould issues” especially as energy bills soar.
But despite these calls for change, a quick search through the news headlines show the problem looks to be worse than ever this winter.
Tenant’s groups on social media are filled with horror stories with private landlords forcing families to live in damp, mouldy housing and even evicting them when they complain.
Citizens Advice have joined the call for tougher action on properties in the private rental sector, as the current legislation does not extend to landlords and there are concerns that children in those properties could suffer the same fate as Awaab.
So just how bad is the problem of black mould? How bad is it for your health? What can you do about it if you find it in your home? Is it your landlord's responsibility to get rid of mould?
What is black mould?
Black mould is commonly found in homes in areas where poor ventilation and/or condensation cause a buildup of moisture. Window frames, bathrooms and kitchens are notorious spots and the fungus can often be found growing on tiles, fabrics, carpets, wood and other materials.
Cladosporium and Alternaria fungi are two types of black mould often found in homes, that can cause allergies and acute asthma. The less common Stachybotrys chartarum type can release toxins that are more harmful to humans.
Can black mould harm you?
Yes, is the short answer. According to NHS guidance: “moulds produce allergens, irritants and, sometimes, toxic substances.
“Inhaling or touching mould spores may cause an allergic reaction, such as sneezing, a runny nose, red eyes and skin rash. Moulds can also cause asthma attacks.”
People living in mouldy homes are also more likely to have respiratory problems, respiratory infections, allergies or asthma. Damp and mould can also affect the immune system.
How big is the problem?
Greg Fell, the vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, called black mould a “a significant threat,” to public health and a “hidden risk”.
The cost of heating this year is not making things easier. “We are going into a winter where people will be turning the heating down in a way that encourages more damp in our homes,” Mr Fell warned in a Guardian interview.
Environmental Consultant Dr Stephen Battersby reports there are about 400,000 damp homes in the private rented sector, compared to around 100,000 in the local authority social rented sector.
Nearly a quarter of private rented homes failed to meet the government’s Decent Homes Standard with private renters more likely to report problems like damp, according to the English Housing Survey.
Frequently landlords blame tenants for the problem, refusing to fix it, Dr Battersby told LBC.
He said: “I have heard over many, many years things like: ‘it's a lifestyle issue, it’s occupier behaviour. It used to drive me mad, I must be honest, to hear this.
“It's to do with structure, it's to do with ventilation, it's to do with heating, and if you have a hard-to-heat property, there is an increased chance of condensation.”
So if private landlords blame tenants for black mould, and housing experts say it is due to structural problems, who is legally responsible for fixing the problem?
Whose responsibility is it to get rid of black mould?
It can be tricky to establish who is responsible. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 makes clear that it is the landlord’s responsibility to fix mould issues caused by structural faults like rising damp or penetrative damp from leaky roofs, gutters, walls or plumbing.
However the responsibility shifts to the tenant if the mould is due to interior condensation caused by things like drying clothes, showering or cooking without opening windows etc.
This means that it can be hard to determine who is obliged to fix the mould.
Should I complain to my landlord about black mould?
While we will discuss the official channels you can pursue below, anecdotally lots of tenants report being fobbed off and some say they have even been evicted after complaining about mould.
Often tenants will be simply told to scrub mould or paint over it, sometimes they are given a dehumidifier and told to get on with it.
According to Citizens Advice, research showed that people who complained to their landlords were more likely to be served with an eviction notice. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. Everyone has the right to live in a decent home. Shelter have good advice about revenge evictions if you ask for repairs or taking a landlord to court over disrepair and poor conditions.
How do I complain about black mould?
However, your first step should always be to report any mould to your landlord or letting agent as soon as possible, especially if you think your health might be at risk.
Describe where the mould is and any damage to furniture or belongings or health impacts. Once the problem has been reported, the landlord or agent has to respond within 14 days. Shelter have a handy template letter.
If the damp is not caused by a repair issue, your landlord should still look at improvements to the heating, insulation or ventilation. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 (Section 10) states that for a house to be fit for human habitation, ventilation and freedom from damp have to be taken into consideration.
If your landlord fails to respond within the two weeks, your next step could be to contact your local council's private rented housing team, they can give you advice and can ask Environmental Health officers to inspect your home.
What can the council do about mould in my rental accommodation?
You can ask the council to inspect your home under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) which checks for health hazards in your rented home. Most councils have a private rented housing team, use this simple website to find your local council to get in touch.
An Environmental Health Officer should come and make an inspection, they will categorise any hazards in your home as class 1 or class 2. They are obliged to take into account people who are especially vulnerable such as the elderly, children or people with asthma for example.
The government guidance (p53) for inspectors says they must include threats to tenants’ mental health and social well-being which may be caused by living with the presence of damp, damp staining and/or mould growth when determining the level of hazard.
They also have to take into account all the mould patches in the house and what their impact on tenants is collectively - so if more than one area is mouldy, you should be sure the officer sees them all.
If the officer finds category 1 hazards then the council must take action, if there are only category 2 hazards they can choose to act or not. The council may informally ask the landlord to make repairs at this point, if they refuse, or fail to do so, the council must serve them with either a formal Hazard awareness notice, or an Improvement notice, which tells the landlord when improvement work must start and finish by.
In some serious cases the council can carry out emergency work themselves and bill the landlord later. You can find more information on the different types of notices on Shelter’s website.
If the council serves your landlord with an improvement notice or an emergency remedial action notice your landlord can't usually give you a valid section 21 notice for the next 6 months which means you'll have some protection against revenge evictions..
Sometimes landlords do not comply with improvement notices, and so Rent Repayment Orders can be created, which forces landlords to refund up to 12 months’ rent back to their tenants.