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Revealed: How Britain’s squalid housing crisis hits Black and Asian tenants hardest

Special Investigation: Mould covering windows and walls next to sleeping children. Ceilings collapsing feet away from tenants. Complaints ignored, evictions threatened. Nadine White hears the stories that lay bare the plight of non-white renters across the country

Friday 12 May 2023 09:38 BST
The Osman family are forced to live in a one-bedroom flat covered in black mould
The Osman family are forced to live in a one-bedroom flat covered in black mould ( )

Black and Asian tenants are being forced to bear the brunt of Britain's squalid housing from mould and disrepair to forced evictions, The Independent can reveal in a special investigation that lays bare the racial disparities facing renters.

The death of a Black toddler, Awaab Ishak, caused by mould in his family's one-bedroom flat in Rochdale highlighted the health risks faced by families left in uninhabitable conditions by their landlords.

Exclusive research shows that Black and minority ethnic tenants are far more likely to be the victims of illegal behaviour from their landlords.

In findings one campaigner warned should send “shivers down the spines” of everyone in Westminster, we uncovered:

  • A family of five forced into a mould-ridden one-bedroom flat
  • Landlords ignoring complaints from Black and Asian residents for years on end
  • Tenants who believe they're treated differently to their white neighbours
  • One Black private renter whose roof fell in after her complaints of leaks were not dealt with – and then was served with an eviction notice
  • More than 80 per cent of Black and Asian renters have been forced to live in disrepair over the past 12 months

Charities have called for the government to take immediate action with legislation to stop renters facing discrimination, while Labour warned substandard housing "takes a huge toll on the physical and mental health of all those in it".

‘We cannot take much more of this’

Night after night, Hamdy Osman lies awake listening to his five-year-old son Mohammed across the bedroom, coughing for dear life. Will they have to rush him to hospital again?

The 53-year-old hotel worker and his wife Banazeer, 36, are forced to squeeze into a one-bedroom flat in west London with Mohammed and his brothers, aged 12 and 14. Dark black mould coats the walls, ceilings and cupboard of every room. Tentacles of mildew stretch along window sills and down the side of beds.

The mould returns in the Osmans’ house despite Hamdy’s attempts to get rid of it (Supplied)

Mohammed, recently diagnosed with asthma, has had his breathing issues exacerbated by the damp and mould, while Hamdy and Banazeer worry their other sons’ development will be affected too – there’s a clinical link between “unhealthy” indoor conditions and growth delay. Hamdy has heart problems, and says the stress is exacerbating them. He says the issue was first raised with his housing association, Notting Hill Genesis, six years ago, and countless times since, but nothing has been done.

“How long can this go on for?” he asks. “My son is constantly coughing and we’ve been in and out of the hospital for the past three years. I’ve been complaining to the housing association but nothing has been resolved.”

Hamdy has tried to take matters into his own hands, papering over the damp with thick, vinyl wallpaper and spraying bottle after bottle of anti-mould spray on the walls, the noxious chemicals burning the back of his throat.

But again and again, the mould returns, worse than before.

81%

of non-white tenants have had to live in disrepair in the last 12 months

The housing association has acknowledged the one-bedroom flat was severely “overcrowded”, but Hamdy says he was told that, according to the provider’s surveyors, the mould was down to the family drying laundry at home without proper ventilation.

“This situation is hopeless,” Hamdy says. “If we fall behind on the rent then we’ll receive threatening letters but no one is bothered about how we’re suffering with the mould and overcrowding. We cannot take much more of this.”

For now, Hamdy and his family will struggle on. But for them and many thousands of others in squalid housing across Britain, they’re left with a question: would this be happening if we were white?

‘We should be beyond ashamed’

The question of race and substandard housing has come under greater scrutiny since the inquest of Awaab Ishak in November ruled the two-year-old was killed by a respiratory infection caused by mould. Housing secretary Michael Gove called the toddler’s death “a tragedy that should never have occurred”.

When the housing ombudsman investigated, it found staff at the provider, which had 12,000 homes, treated tenants with “prejudices, lazy assumptions and an attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees that is wholly unacceptable”. They were seen as “lucky” to have a roof over their heads.

Get in touch

If you have been affected by the housing issues in this article then please contact nadine.white@independent.co.uk

Research carried out by YouGov for housing charity Shelter – shared exclusively with The Independent - shows that, across every area of substandard housing, private tenants are more likely to have been affected if they are not white.

More than four in five non-white renters have had to live in disrepair in the past 12 months (compared with less than three in five white people), while 58 per cent have suffered mould or damp (versus 47 per cent). One in three have had issues with boilers or heating.

Even starker is the difference in treatment by property owners. While 18 per cent of white renters said they had experienced illegal acts by landlords in the past year, for non-white tenants the figure is 33 per cent. They were also more likely to be threatened with eviction in the past three years, whether they had complained about issues in their home or not.

Housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa, 23, highlights the horrendous conditions renters have been forced to live in. He told The Independent: “Having come from a background of disrepair, it’s been very clear from early on that renters of colour receive the brunt of poor treatment when it comes to bad landlords and disrepair across the UK.

“These statistics don’t shock me but should send shivers up the spines of everyone across the country especially those in Westminster.

“Britain prides itself as a country that is diverse and inclusive so why is it now we are seeing people of colour not only in social housing, but private housing, being treated as less than second-class citizens?

Kwajo Tweneboa campaigns over horrendous rental conditions (PA)

“After the death of Awaab Ishak and the Grenfell disaster. We should be beyond ashamed of these statistics. It’s alarming when animals in Battersea Dogs and Cats Home live in better conditions than many renters in the UK.”

The Osmans are not the only tenants suffering in a property managed by Notting Hill Genesis.

Nima, who lives in one of the provider’s properties in Shepherds Bush, says she has been blighted by issues since moving in 12 years ago. Mould covers the wooden window panes of a bedroom, while water accumulates under the kitchen floor and behind the toilet. Gaps in the front and back doors mean it costs the 50-year-old more to heat her home – a growing problem as gas and electricity bills soar. Now she has found a nest of mice, as well as finding slugs throughout her home.

Each time she complained, Nima said she was met with “hostility or disrespect” while conditions continued to deteriorate. “I’m not quick to blame problems on race but if I wasn’t an Asian woman, this wouldn’t be happening,” Nima told The Independent.

Mould covers the walls of Nima’s home (Supplied)

“When I was complaining to a housing officer they said ‘you’re lucky to have that property’.”

NHG claimed Nima had only reported issues about cupboard units and a leaky tap in the past year, which had been resolved, but would carry out a visit. The housing association also acknowledged the problems in the Osmans’ flat and pledged to “support” the family.

A spokesperson said officers had been given extra training to spot mould and had also started a dedicated residents’ focus group, adding: “ We take all reports of damp and mould seriously but recognise we haven’t always dealt with issues as quickly or effectively as we should. We are sorry to any of our residents who have suffered discomfort or distress as a result.”

‘It’s too much to be dealing with’

The government is now facing calls to reform rental rules. According to Shelter, the best way to root out housing inequality is through legislation. Chief executive Polly Neate said: “It is appalling how entrenched racial inequality and discrimination are in private renting. Our research shows people of colour are much more likely to experience illegal acts by their landlord and to live in rentals with dampness and mould.

“A lack of proper regulation and oversight in private renting means discriminatory practices, bad behaviour, and poor standards routinely go unchecked – which disproportionately impacts renters on lower incomes who have much less choice over what they rent, and who from.

“Our services regularly hear from people too afraid to complain about poor conditions in case they are evicted, and either end up homeless or forced back into a discriminatory rental market.”

Opposition parties have also pledged changes to rental laws. Shadow housing minister, Matthew Pennycook, said: “Substandard private rented housing takes a huge toll on the physical and mental health of all those in it.” He said his party was committed to “tackling deeper inequalities”.

Helen Morgan, Lib Dem housing spokesperson, said her party would bring in protections for renters, adding: “The stories of people across the country struggling with housing in various states of disrepair should be a wake-up call to the Conservative government.“

Anny Cullum, of community union Acorn, said the statistics revealed by The Independent were “shocking”, adding: “Private tenants can be evicted at will without giving a reason, and rents can be increased every year by any amount. With such light regulation, landlords are effectively free to discriminate on whatever grounds they like, be it racial, economic or otherwise.”

I feel like my job on top of my actual employment is also being a property manager

Mr Gove has committed to introducing a renters’ reform bill in parliament, which had been expected this week but is now understood to have been pushed back, telling Sky News the proposals would “change the way in which the relationship between landlords and tenants work, providing tenants with new protection which should ensure that they’re better protected against arbitrary rent increases”. The Department for Housing, Levelling Up and Communities said the changes wold “empower tenants to challenge poor conditions”, adding that it was a criminal offence to discriminate against someone because of race, and landlords who did so should “face the full force of the law”.

But in the meantime, renters are still facing unliveable conditions – and the insecurity that comes with any decision to challenge their landlord. Private tenant Alice, 26, had spent months complaining to her Leeds landlord about damage to her flat by water damage.

Furniture and precious clothing were ruined, and one of the bedrooms rendered uninhabitable by the damage. After months of complaining to no avail, part of her kitchen roof fell in and, weeks later, her bathroom ceiling collapsed as she was stood just metres away.

Alice, who is Black, says that for over 16 months she has been forced to live in this hazardous home, exposed to worsening damp and mould.

“It’s too much to be dealing with on top of the rest of life,” Alice said.

“It’s stressful. I feel like my job on top of my actual employment is also being a property manager. I don’t feel like I should be doing that when somebody else is being paid to be my property manager but isn’t saying anything to me for a year…until it’s time to ask me to pay more.

Now Alice has been served with notice of eviction – something she believes is revenge for the continual concerns she has raised over the property’s condition. Her landlord says it is down to “lack of access” to the property.

She adds: “I’m not as comfortable at home as I should be. It feels like I’m being ignored even though I’m continuing to pay for a service; like going to a shop, paying for items and not being given them, time and time again.”

If you have been affected by the housing issues in this article then please contact nadine.white@independent.co.uk

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