Private and social landlords must stop blaming tenants for mould and damp, according to new advice issued by the government – and landlords are worried they could be sanctioned for damage they didn’t cause.
According to the guidance, it is “totally unreasonable” to attribute damp and mould to tenants’ lifestyle choices. Everyday activities like cooking and washing will unavoidably produce indoor moisture, but the fundamental causes of damp and mould are “building deficiencies, inadequate ventilation, inadequate heating and/or poor energy efficiency”, as well as other factors like overcrowding, it says.
The guidance also calls on landlords to proactively investigate their properties for damp or mould, and says that tenants may face various barriers to reporting damp issues themselves, including language barriers, a lack of awareness of their rights, or fear of eviction.
What effect will the guidance have?
The guidance aims to stop landlords from using tenants’ activities as a reason not to tackle damp and mould. In the inquest into the death of toddler Awaab Ishak, caused by prolonged exposure to mould, the Coroner found that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing had blamed the family for mould buildup and initially told his father to simply paint over it. In their foreword to the guidance, Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, say that it is a direct response to the Coroner’s report.
The guidance also looks ahead to new rules on housing standards that the government plans to add to the Renters (Reform) Bill. The Decent Homes Standard will be applied to privately rented homes for the first time. Private tenants will also be able to take their case to an ombudsman if their landlords do not respond to complaints, opening the way for landlords to be ordered to remedy issues or pay compensation if they do not tackle mould.
Landlords are concerned that they will now be blamed (and made to pay) for mould issues even when they really are caused by tenants. As the guidance recognises, condensation damp is the most common form of damp in homes, and some argue that this is often caused by tenants inadequately heating and ventilating properties.
But the guidance isn’t as absolute as the politicians’ statements. The included ventilation checklist recognises that landlords may wish to encourage tenants to ventilate when cooking or after washing, to open windows regularly, leave trickle vents open and use extractor fans.
Property solicitor Tessa Shepperson says that the law has now tilted further in favour of tenants, but the new guidance is just guidance and landlords may have a defence in court if they can prove that tenants have contributed to the damp. Inspections and rigorous evidence collection will be a must, both to spot and repair damp and mould issues and to document their causes.
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