“More than half a million – or one in seven – social homes in England do not meet basic health and safety standards. Awaab’s death is a harrowing example of the widespread contempt that is held for social housing tenants across the country.”
By Jeremy Corbyn
December should have been a month of celebration. Awaab Ishak should be opening his presents, blowing out the candles on his cake, and playing with his friends. And his parents should be wishing him a happy 4th birthday. Instead, they are grieving.
Awaab Ishak passed away in 2020 when he was just two years old. He died as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in a flat unfit for human habitation. Awaab’s parents first complained of mould in 2017, before Awaab was born. This was one of several warnings made to their social housing provider, and one of several warnings that was ignored or dismissed.
As a family continues to grieve, hundreds of thousands of other families live in similar conditions that led to Awaab’s death. Around 120,000 social households live with mould. More than half a million – or one in seven – social homes in England do not meet basic health and safety standards. Awaab’s death is a harrowing example of the widespread contempt that is held for social housing tenants across the country. Starting with Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, successive governments have not just overseen the decimation of social housing (1.2m households are currently on social housing waiting lists in England) but also the stigmatisation of those who live there.
It is a stigmatising contempt that is reflected in government inaction. In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor mentioned “stability” 11 times, “business” 21 times, and “growth” 29 times. Unfortunately, “social housing” or “council housing” did not get a single mention. While the Tories have indulged themselves in endless melodrama, people across the country are campaigning against the scandal of housing needs. It is shameful that it took the death of a two-year-old boy for the government to say anything at all.
If the government wants to do something meaningful, it could immediately give local authorities the legal and financial power to increase levels of inspection. There is no reason why this approach should not apply beyond the social housing sector too. The public anger arising from Awaab’s death must lead to a transformation both in policy and attitude toward the housing needs of everybody.
The plight facing those in social housing overlaps with the plight of those in the private rented sector; 42% of private renters – or 4.7 million people – have experienced issues with mould in their current property in the last year. Private renters are often afraid to complain, fearing eviction if they dare speak out of line. Any increase in public health inspection, then, must be accompanied by tougher legislation that cracks down on housing associations and landlords who currently escape accountability.
The issues facing social households and private tenants stem from the same problem: housing is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a human right to be recognised and respected. A profitable market leaves private renters vulnerable to rampant exploitation (in the words of Jimmy McMillan, a perennial election candidate in New York, The Rent Is Too Damn High); they would not be so fearful of speaking out against their living conditions if landlords did not have such a powerful economic incentive for quashing them. And it forces social tenants to compete over the measly scraps; they would not be forced to live in such horrendous conditions if the amount of money subsidising private markets was spent on building good quality social homes instead. The younger generation – or ‘generation rent’ – are particularly marginalised by a housing market that forces the vast majority to chase a lost dream of homeownership, saddled with a mountain of student debt instead.
The solution to the housing crisis must transform the economic structures that deprive millions of people of a safe and secure tenancy. Local authorities should not just have the power to increase levels of public health inspection. They should have the power to introduce rent controls, too, which provide private tenants with protection against harassment, deposit deduction and eviction. When rent controls were introduced in Berlin in 2020, 1.5 million households benefited from more affordable housing.
Contrary to popular belief, rent controls have existed in the UK before, too – between 1915 and 1988. During that time, the private rented sector fell to 8% of homes in the UK. The property-class will point to this as a sign of failure: that the collapse of the private market is devastating for tenants. However, they are less likely to point out the fact that 4.4 million council houses were built during the same period. The collapse of the private market – and the growth of public provision – was a sign that the policy succeeded.
What this tells us is that rent controls are only one part of a much broader struggle: to reclaim housing as a public good. We cannot regulate or inspect ourselves out of the housing crisis. But nor can we merely build our way out, if we do not confront the model of ownership on which we are building. To that end, calls for more housing are not good enough. The only path to housing justice is a mass programme of social and council house building. A programme that shifts the balance of power away from private landlords to the community. A programme that challenges the perception of social housing as an undesirable alternative to private home ownership. A programme that demonstrates why publicly owned council housing is beneficial for us all.
Everybody should have a decent, warm, dry, safe and secure place to live. For some, this is apparently controversial. However, if the inalienable right to shelter was truly respected in this country, Awaab Ishak may still be around today to celebrate his birthday with his family and friends.