Usually, I am hesitant to write about issues that could be seen as a fear-mongering warning, but not in this case. 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 two years, we’ve been studying and analysing a massive amount of property performance data. There is one clear trend in particular; there has been a huge increase in the average absolute humidity in the thousands of properties we monitor for UK housing providers. When we say huge, we mean it – there has been an average increase of 26 per cent 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 during the lockdown.
What does this mean for us as a housing provider or local authority?
It means more mould! The usual 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 mass of other factors involved in the spreading of mould, specifically relating to vapour pressure, temperature, dewpoint and so on. However, in general, high humidity will drastically increase the risk of a household experiencing mould.
Why have we had so few complaints about mould?
There’s an interesting answer to this. Along with the lockdown, we have seen some pretty spectacular, dry and warm weather for the most part. 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 will turn into very high relative humidity. This will 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 (such as mould washes, ventilation installations, re-decoration, new heating systems, insulation improvements and new windows). It’s likely to be a very challenging time for housing providers and their contractors, DLOs and legal teams.
What can we do about this ‘mould bomb’?
Our first suggestion is to be proactive. 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 (such as 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 has been sending digital stock condition surveys on behalf of our clients to ask about things such as visible mould (with response rates of 90 per cent within 24 hours). Once you know the properties with the problems, you can start to manage residents’ expectations and 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.
Responsibility for compliance
It’s also recommended that you conduct ongoing monitoring of these problem properties and archetypes. Data shows us that roughly one-third of rented properties have some form of problem relating to condensation, damp and mould at any given time. If you aren’t aware of them, that doesn’t mean they are not out there. The idea that “we’re not responsible for what we don’t know about” is gone. Fitness for Human Habitation has changed that, 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 (such as 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:
- Identify your likely problem properties now;
- Proactively contact or survey those residents to understand their risk of mould;
- Monitor the situation remotely through sensors or smart technology to help avoid complaints and legal disrepair costs.
Alastair Thorpe is the commercial director at Switchee.