A tenant with an incurable lung condition he says was caused by mould in his flat has called for greater punishments for councils and landlords that fail to act on “inhumane” living conditions.
In 2021, Max, 38, was diagnosed with sarcoidosis – an autoimmune condition triggered by exposure to certain irritants such as chemicals or fungus – four years after he had moved into a flat riddled with leaks, damp and black mould that was offered to him by Hackney council.
The chronic disease has since spread to his heart, and is suspected to have affected his nervous system, greatly increasing the risk of the condition becoming terminal. His symptoms include coughing blood, dry eyes and problems salivating.
Three doctors on separate occasions produced letters stating that there were medical dangers to Max’s current living situation; one said that his current home put him at “extra risk of lung complications”. One of these letters was sent to the council in 2021.
Three months ago, the dire state of UK housing was pushed into the headlines when a report found that the 2020 death of Rochdale toddler Awaab Ishak was caused by exposure to mould.
It felt like my body was the body of an elderly man. I didn’t know what was happening
Housing charities told the Observer this weekend they felt not enough progress was being made to protect tenants from dire living conditions. Many said the issue was set to get worse, and one warned of “more deaths” from poor housing if more isn’t done soon.
“Within months of moving in, I started to suffer from a variety of symptoms,” said Max. “I had dry eyes, dry sinuses, my mouth wasn’t salivating. It felt like my body was the body of an elderly man. I didn’t know what was happening.”
The council repeatedly told Max that the damp and black mould was because of his breathing or cooking, he claims. When asked, the council said it could not comment on this claim without knowing who he spoke to. “It was only in 2020 that I realised all the symptoms I was having were because I was constantly breathing mould spores,” said Max. “And that was when I started to cough up blood.”
He is now taking the council to court over its treatment of him and the impact cardiac and lung sarcoidosis has had on his life. Increasing evidence suggests exposure to mould is one of the major causes of the disease. The five-year survival rate for severe cardiac sarcoidosis is 60% to 75%.
The Observer has seen photos of the flat before any works were carried out, and they show entire walls covered in black mould.
Hackney councillor Clayeon McKenzie apologised on behalf of the council for its failure to swiftly address issues in Max’s flat, and said it took the situation “very seriously”. The council says it carried out numerous works in the flat over a five-year period, including first treating an area of mould in 2017 and replacing the kitchen in 2021.
As a result, McKenzie said, Max’s flat was now “generally in good condition” and he “does not qualify for an urgent transfer to another home”.
He said the council still has to carry out some additional work and has arranged an urgent inspection this week to check what else may be needed to treat an area of mould in his living room.
“I want to reassure every Hackney resident that we take these issues extremely seriously,” said McKenzie.
Last year, the Housing Ombudsman found Hackney council guilty of “severe maladministration” in its failure to deal with damp and mould in another resident’s home.
After the Ishak case, housing secretary Michael Gove cut all government funding to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, the housing association that provided the home where the toddler lived, and said the social housing regulator would have additional powers to investigate and levy higher fines under forthcoming legislation.
However, several housing organisations told the Observer of concerns about delays, a lack of ringfenced funding for councils to enforce any new rules and gaps in the new proposals.
“Nothing is moving fast enough,” said Roz Spencer, head of service for housing charity Safer Renting. “To fear the worst, and to fear that there will be more deaths, is entirely reasonable.”