Opinion: Dampen your Mould – The dire state of housing in the UK

After an initial widely shared and discussed ITV report from 22nd March 2021, it took another report on the 13th of April for the Housing Ombudsman to launch an investigation into some dire living conditions for many (social housing) tenants across the country caused by damp and mould.

In a response to the initial report, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said that while he was “disgusted by the images revealed by ITV” and “those practises will be rooted out”,  he “does not think the conditions of the social housing in Croydon are representative of the whole of the UK”.

However, in response to both the first and second report, reporter Daniel Hewitt “was ‘inundated’ with ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of examples”. “ITV News investigations have found there is a ‘growing problem with severe mould and damp’ throughout the UK, with councils often not dealing with residents’ complaints.”

The Blame Game never changes…

The blame for mould and damp, as Hewitt explains in an interview, is often placed with the tenants themselves. This is something that I recognise myself. I have heard it working in the social housing sector for over 10 years in two different countries. I’ve heard it from many peers working in both sectors, especially in the UK. I’ve heard and experienced it living in a 1960s-built terraced home.

As Hewitt says, tenants are told that “they are not ventilating their flat enough. They are not opening the window, they are using the washing machine too much. Effectively the mould and damp is their own problem.”

I have heard many housing staff utter these same phrases in response to reports of damp straight away. Even before someone has had a look that. I’ve seen numerous of such complaints, and which were mostly pleas for help.  

I’ve been told it myself by a former private sector landlord. Living in a home with radiators placed on internal walls rather than external walls, ventilating the property daily even throughout winter, not even owning a washing machine and only drying washing inside if the weather was absolutely dire outside.

Of course, upon terminating the tenancy, my deposit was withheld because they found specs of mould upon inspection. Specs of mould, after cleaning entire swathes of it throughout our tenancy, from the very beginning; we were at fault.

Damp, mould and condensation are flogged as a ‘lifestyle problem’. This approach ignores the age and/or low build quality of many homes still present in social housing stock. The lack of enough decent homes fit for the 21st century is not a secret. As Hewitt said, “there are almost half a million people in England living in sub-standard social housing in this country. 200,000 of them are living in properties with damp, with risk of electrocution”. This is not a big state secret either. These numbers come from government data.

Proof is in the… putting in sensors

I’m writing to tell you, if you didn’t know already, that there is technology available that can help. Help with detecting and preventing mould and damp from spreading to the levels as seen in the recent reports.

Specifically, the most useful technology here is sensor technology, which falls in the realm of ‘Internet of Things’ technology. We can place sensors in homes that send data with information on humidity, temperature, airflow, movement and many more things using Wi-Fi. The sensor sends the data to an online platform. There we can track, analyse and send out reports and warnings to whomever has access to that platform.

There are many providers of sensor technology, and there are quite a few landlords investing in the technology and/or running and starting pilots already, although many still use the excuse of ‘cost’ to not start trying things out, even though it can help save both them and the tenants living in the homes they  manage a lot of money in the long run.

Danger, Will Robinson

Source: virtualizationsoftware.com

As with everything, there is a danger that technology can be used for, well, less great things. Even if the motivations of their creators were benign to begin with.

Going back to one of my first housing tech events, I remember the anecdote of one of the attendees. It was about a landlord who welcomed the opportunity for housing providers to turn off boilers and other essential appliances remotely. Why? To force rent payments or evictions. This is a bad take on the great possibilities that remote control of such appliances have for health and safety concerns. Sensor technology, the data and information also have the power to be used in a similar way.

Instead of driven by a desire (and duty) to ensure safe and healthy homes for all, I can see the tool being implemented mainly as a tool to further the narrative of blame and mould and damp as lifestyle problems in homes that everyone knows are prone to damp and mould.

 As emphasised in this Public Sector Build Journal article, which outlines the impact of the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act,

“With responsibility for thousands of properties, the new legislation creates specific challenges for social landlords. These will include ensuring that their homes meet the specified standards and quickly identifying those that aren’t. And importantly understanding why and who was responsible for any persistent failings.”

Excuse me? Challenge? Like with multiple reports from ITV being needed to at least plant some seedlings of urgency to dealing with this widespread problem of mould and damp, clearly it takes a new Act for social landlords to get their ducks in a row and suddenly ‘face a challenge’ to ensuring homes meet certain standards… And of course there is the ‘who was responsible’ phrase that can get us into a big grey area if we don’t acknowledge the limitations of sensor data and place it over lived experience and wide-spread socio-economic factors that play a role in the current state of the UK’s housing stock.

There’s more than meets the eye-opening data from sensors

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely LOVE the possibilities that come with sensor technology. I do believe that it can help all parties involved to create healthier living environments. Sensor technology can help us learn more about (our own) habits. It can show us where we can make potential savings when it comes to heating our homes. Combined with other SMART technology, such as remotely operated thermostats, it has the potential to not only make our lives easier, but also to rethink and redesign the way we live.

There are few big and very important things that should accompany the spread of sensor technology across the world. A world that includes the social housing sector in the UK. We have to appreciate and embrace these technologies, without losing sight of what happens in the real world. To the very real people (not reference numbers or complaints cases) living in their homes.

Just stop it

Source: Amazon.co.uk

Successful and ethical use of technology in order to address and monitor living conditions, always has to start with, the following. And let me put this very, very bluntly:

STOP BLAMING TENANTS FOR DAMP AND MOULD AS A STANDARD ANSWER TO AVOID DOING THE WORK TO ADDRESS THE ROOT CAUSES.

STOP IT. Just stop it.

Period.

The lack of enough decent homes fit for the 21st century, or even the end of the 20th, is not a secret, as Hewitt said on the 22nd of March 2021:

“there are almost half a million people in England, and we know this from government data, living in sub-standard social housing in this country, 200,000 of them living in properties with damp, with risk of electrocution.”

Secondly, from the examples of Ms Franksoy Hewitt and Mr Leroy McNally, the two tenants who featured in the initial ITV report, it is clear that they too have received that standard response for ages without anyone taking them seriously, placing both blame and the onus to resolve it with the tenant.

Croydon Council ignored the complaints for over 5 months, but they were soon to send out inspectors, express apologies and organise alternative accommodation – within 24 hours – after ITV sharing their report and asking for comment. It shouldn’t take a journalist raising awareness for this to get any attention.

This is the social housing sector. Of course, all landlords, but especially social landlords, including councils, are responsible to provide safe and healthy homes to their tenants as a matter of principle, it should be at the very core of their being. With this very basic mission statement should come the knowledge and acknowledgement of the state of the UK’s social housing stock.  

See the Big Data picture

Source: CreativityPost.com

And that’s where my second big point comes in. We need to not only use the sensor data from as many (social) homes as we can. We also need to combine them with the lived experiences of the people living in these homes. Only then can we make a holistic case for building not only more, but also better homes.

Yes, a single sensor in a single home can help a single tenant to save on energy bills.

Yes, a single temperature sensor can alert a landlord to any signs of financial struggles. Especially when combined with data from rent accounts and from incoming calls (or lack thereof). It can help them reach out sooner in an appropriate way.

Yes, multiple sensors in the same block can help prove that complaints aren’t just from one tenant. Data from more than one sensor telling the same story can help you rethink a landlord’s timescales for planned maintenance. This can help prevent the spread of damp and mould, keeping tenants safe and their living environments healthy.

Hell yes, we should invest in all of this.

These are good things for individuals at one point in time, but they are reactive and small-picture. These instances are a plaster on a wound that is far too big and infected to be sorted with a simple one-size-fits-one band-aid. They are quick fixes that only touch the surface of what we should be doing with these kinds of data.

I’m not saying that we should stop investing in these quick wins. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t help individuals tenants, and improving individual homes. However, we need these technologies to help us create a better future for housing. We cannot let these individual wins stay what they are. They need to be the catalysts for more. They need to show the bigger picture; the big data picture of the dire state of housing.

Build for more, not for less

This means we will need to find ways to bring all the information, all the things we learn about our living environments, together. Not just within one street or block of homes, not just within one organisation. Not even just within one city, not just within one county or even country. In fact, we need to work globally to build better homes. But, as we’re talking social housing here, let’s start with housing associations working together.

When we work together, technology can help us all become more aware of how we are living. It can also show us how we might change some things that help create a more sustainable future. We are already doing that in some ways, but it is sad to see that most of the innovation happens in homes built to sell. A future with safe and warm homes should not just be for those who can afford it, but for everyone.

PEngage.com

The entire sector, and all those working in and of the fringes of it, need to set aside any desires they might have for financial gain and/or competitive natures to be ‘the first, the one and only’. Instead, they have to work together from the get-go to design and build homes that work. They must bring together everything they know to convince government and other funding bodies available, that they need more financial support to build homes fit for the 21st century. They must also come together to fight the ‘race to the bottom’ way of selecting and acquiring resources and building sub-standard quality homes, and scrutinise the builders we select for building our social homes.

Together we can prove that damp and mould are not a lifestyle problem, but more often than not the result poor building quality and, in a way, of wide-spread tenant stigma. Why? Because the stigma informs resource allocation, design choices and the way we react to the first signs of trouble. ‘It’s good enough for social housing’ is something we don’t need to hear more of. If we don’t, and if we don’t use technology to help tackle every challenge that tenants face that are out of their own control, why bother with technology in social housing at all, or social housing for that matter?

The Data Chainsaw Massacre: Digital Skills Training

The Tree

I can hear you think, what does a chainsaw have to do with digital skills training?

Imagine I was moaning to someone about the massive tree in my back garden blocking out the summer sunshine from my home and garden. ‘Really need to do something about that….’ And I’ve been saying that for a few years now, while the tree gets bigger and bigger. We all know how things like that go…

The person I was moaning to has had enough of me moaning, and one day comes by with a surprise: A CHAINSAW!

“There you go”, they say, “problem solved! Use this chainsaw to cut down the tree or at least some of the big branches!”, and, muttered under their breath ‘and then please stop moaning…

I look at the chainsaw, then at the tree, and then back at the chainsaw, and think ‘oh dear…

The tree IS massive. And that chainsaw is quite heavy and scary. And, really, should I be using that? Or, well, technically what I meant was that I’d need to ring someone, like a professional. A tree surgeon for example, to come and solve my problem, as well, me using a chainsaw… Really? And adding to that, it’s raining a bit now, and my arm is still a bit sore from weights training, so I’ll put it in the shed for now…

A chainsaw is a tool, a heavy tool, not to be wielded lightly. It’s not a solution; giving me a chainsaw is not going to solve my problems for at least three reasons. First of all, I do not have the knowledge to use it. Second, and because of number one, I don’t have the confidence to use it. Third, even if I did have one and two, I do not have the other tools needed to use the chainsaw safely and effectively.

So… the chainsaw will sit there in the garage, (probably forever). My friend wasted their money, and the tree still blocks my sun. Still, I dare not moan about it anymore when meeting with that friend because they’d simply say ‘…well, I gave you a chainsaw…!’ On top of that I’d have to admit my lack of knowledge, confidence, the fact I’m not investing in other tools (decent ladder, any safety kit perhaps…). The only problem that got solved was me moaning about a tree, not the actual tree and the fact that it is blocking out the sun.

Digital Tools, not Solutions

I see the same happening with Digital Tools in housing associations (and it happens in other sectors as well, probably).

Digital Transformation is at the forefront of every single housing association I’m checking out/applying for/interviewing with at the moment. And rightfully so. Every day someone somewhere thinks of something new, starts developing a new application, device, website or data management system. Most of them will fail, some of them will change our lives forever.

If the Covid Pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we need to embrace these failures and successes in order to get better at working more agile, more digital, and more flexible with that. It has also, hopefully, taught us that just giving people a tablet or a phone or a laptop, or making a web-application ‘responsive’ isn’t a solution; it’s providing people with tools that need to be used correctly, with confidence and often in tandem with other tools in order to solve any (part of a) problem. You can achieve this by providing (ongoing) digital skills training.

But, you mentioned the Data Chainsaw Massacre!?

Whatever digital tools you use, whether it’s hardware or software, they are a way to input, manage, and manipulate the data you use to run your organisation financially, sustainably and socially. If there are members of staff that don’t feel comfortable with the ‘solution’ handed to them, it could be detrimental to your data integrity, and with that your services and entire business.

So, if you think you have handed them ‘the solution’, but the tablets and laptops stay in desk drawers because they are too bulky, too scary or too much hassle to use ‘out and about’, your data is at serious risk. They might feel daft asking for more training and practice, embarrassed because it ‘should be so easy’.

Equally, if people do try to use them but in the incorrect way, they risk losing valuable information themselves to be able to do their jobs correctly, which in turn has an effect on the tenant.

Tools have a tendency to not work in isolation. Whether that’s a chisel without a hammer, a hammer without a nail, or a chainsaw without the confidence and physical strength to wield it. The same is true for your organisation; whether it’s about hardware, software or the knowledge, mindset, and confidence to work with the previous two in the correct way.

Tools don’t make the professional

Sometimes it’s best to leave things to professionals. Even though you might have access to the same physical tools they have. I will not be cutting back or down that tree in my garden on my own. I will pay a professional to do it in my stead. Why? I know that if I would try it, there would be a significant risk I’d not only hurt myself. I might hurt other people and buildings as well; although I’d ask them to stay clear before I’d get chopping, obviously.

The difference between me and that professional are that they have had adequate training and hours and hours of practice in handling that chainsaw. They didn’t just receive a chainsaw from a friend (although, who knows, it might have started out like that!). Instead, they have all the other bits and bobs needed to make the cutting down or back of trees a success with minimal risk to others.

So, what do we do? Digital Skills Training!

If you decide to invest in providing people with digital tools to help your organisation provide better services, you have to make sure those tools aren’t just handed over with minimal instruction and an open invite to ‘come and find us if you have any questions’. You have to provide them with digital skills training. You have to make sure you choose and set them up in a way that also make your staff’s work easier and not more difficult. That will keep them from using it, meaning your investment is not just void, but even detrimental to your service. This is all part of your data strategy.

Make sure you have one correct way of doing things. Provide one clear expectation of entering and working with data. Provide not just one-off but continuous digital skills training to make sure that tools and skills align. This also makes sure that training is for everyone and nobody feels ‘less’ than someone else for asking for more help or explanation.

And, let’s not forget, people might think they know how to use it, but they might not realise they actually don’t. Providing training for everyone means you have more control over the impact you want your digital tools to have.

Provide the correct frameworks, training and support materials to help your staff understand what you expect of them. Show them that if they put in the effort of learning how to use it can make their lives easier. Otherwise, that tree might come crashing down on not just your own house, but also those of your tenants.