If your properties could talk, what would they say?

As humans, it is in our nature to want to address any issues we find with our bodies. If we have a cut, we wash and plaster it; if it is something more serious, we visit a doctor. We know that pain or discomfort is a sign that something is wrong, and...

  • Mould
  • by Alastair Thorpe on September 21, 2020

A Mould Bomb Is Coming

There is a mould bomb coming for social housing - lockdown has created the perfect storm of conditions for a critical blow to be dealt to housing providers

Usually, I am hesitant to write about issues that could be seen as a fear-mongering warning, but in this case, I don’t think I have a choice. There is a mould bomb coming for every housing provider in the UK and unfortunately, it has teeth. Fitness for Human Habitation Legal Disrepair teeth, to be specific.

Over the last 2 years, we’ve been studying and analysing a massive amount of property performance data. It’s showing a trend - there has been a huge increase in the average absolute humidity within thousands of properties we monitor for UK registered housing providers. When we say huge, we mean it - there’s been an average increase of 26% in the absolute humidity across all properties. Looking at the data, the finger seems to be pointing to many more people spending a lot more time at home over the lockdown.

What does this mean for me as a Housing Association (or Local Authority with housing stock) and why should I care?

It means more mould! Usually, the rule of thumb is that an increase in humidity in a property has a corresponding increase in the likelihood of condensation, damp and mould. Of course, there is a tonne of other factors involved in the spreading of mould - specifically relating to vapour pressure, temperature, dewpoint etc. Generally speaking, though, high humidity is going to drastically increase the risk of a household experiencing mould.

So why haven’t we had loads of complaints about this? In fact, my backlog of repairs is reducing as residents solve some of their repairs issues themselves during this period of reduced service.

There’s an interesting answer to this. Along with the lockdown we have seen some pretty spectacular, dry and warm weather. This has been very pleasant for many of us (as long as we have adequate ventilation and the ability to open our windows) but this nice weather has been hiding a potential problem as we come into the colder months. We can confidently predict that as the temperatures drop in October, November and December, the higher absolute humidity is going to turn into very high relative humidity. This is going to cause a massive increase in mould as households effectively create the perfect growing conditions for it. This will, of course, mean that the number of residents who report issues with mould in their homes will increase. This would be an issue at the best of times. Unfortunately, there is also a heightened awareness of Legal Disrepair claims from residents and law firms who are well within their rights to sue housing providers for compensation and remedial measures to be taken (mould washes, ventilation installations, re-decoration, new heating systems, insulation improvements, new windows etc). It’s likely to be a very challenging time for housing providers and their contractors, DLO’s and legal teams.

Resident communication

So there could be a bigger problem this year than other years because of higher humidity and the introduction of Fitness for Human Habitation promoting legal disrepair. So what can I do about it?

Our suggestion is first to get on the front foot of the issue. Most housing providers are aware of the ‘problem properties’ that have logged multiple issues relating to condensation, damp and mould over the years. You should also be aware of the “problem archetype” properties that lend themselves to creating or trapping humidity (back-to-backs, dormers, solid walls, properties with recent insulation upgrades but inadequate ventilation). This is a great place to start. If you have this list, you can proactively contact your residents to check the situation. In our case, Switchee have been sending digital stock condition surveys on behalf of our clients to ask about things such as visible mould (with response rates of 90% within 24 hours). Once you know the properties with the problems you can start to manage residents expectations and crucially start to log the positive steps you have taken to identify and solve the problems. Surveys have helped our clients detect potential disrepair cases before the lawyers got to them - giving the housing provider time to manage the situation in-house.

legal challenge

It’s also recommended that you conduct ongoing monitoring of these problem properties and archetypes. Data shows us that roughly 1/3 of rented properties have some form of issue relating to condensation, damp and mould at any given time. If you are not aware of them, that doesn’t mean they are not out there. The notion that “we are not responsible for what we don’t know about” is gone. Fitness for Human Habitation has changed this, making housing providers responsible for monitoring properties to ensure compliance. If you have monitoring equipment or sensors in potential problem properties you have a constant stream of useful insights and alerts relating to the health of the property. Having data live from your properties (resident behaviour, under/overheating, external weather factors, the performance of building fabric/insulation and heating system performance) allows you to best allocate your limited resources to get a quick and positive resolution for you and the residents.

So what you should be doing next:

  1. Identify your likely problem properties NOW
  2. Proactively contact or survey these residents to understand their risk of mould
  3. Monitor the situation remotely through sensors or smart technology to help avoid complaints and legal disrepair costs.

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