In November 2022, the coroner concluded that the death in 2020 of two-year-old Awaab Ishak was caused by prolonged exposure to mould in the family’s home. The problem had been reported to the family’s housing provider on many occasions but no action had been taken. No doubt, this has given all of us cause for reflection; how did this happen and what should be the response?
Social housing’s origins
I’ve been looking back at the origins of social housing, reminding myself about the ideas of one of its most renowned pioneers, Octavia Hill. She believed that a responsible landlord should provide not only decent housing but also a socially-inclusive environment. She disparaged municipal housing as being too bureaucratic and impersonal to make this possible. She also believed that public funds should not be squandered on people who made no effort to improve their own situations. Her aim wasn’t just to provide housing but also to encourage self-respect and self-sufficiency among tenants.
To this end, all tenants were known to her personally and she insisted that rents be collected weekly, that maintenance issues be reported at the same time, then acted on straight away. Communication was the key to the success of the operation. Although there was an element of philanthropy in her model, the enterprise was run as a business, with regular returns made to the investors who funded the buildings.
Contact with tenants
If in these origins we see the growth of modern housing associations, it is apparent that one aspect has been especially problematic in the subsequent scaling up – face-to-face contact with tenants.
Octavia Hill’s operation relied on employing rent collectors (and volunteers) to visit every property, regularly and frequently; an ideal technique but not one that can be realistically achieved across the large housing portfolios of today’s providers. It’s too labour-intensive to be viable, which is why alternative methods have been developed and adopted. I’m talking about the internet of things (IoT), the introduction into homes of smart sensors that connect and report to a central hub information relating to almost anything, from the presence of smoke to the probable presence of mould, for example. If all this is possible, then it follows that we need to develop responsive systems to deal with documented problems before they escalate.
Tenants’ health and safety
Without wishing to delve into the politics of how best to fund and operate social housing, it seems clear that the health and safety of tenants sometimes comes lower on housing providers’ list of priorities than it should.
The issue is one that needs to be addressed constantly, which is a thread that runs through Housing Technology. The take-up of IoT is increasing fast, itself a sector-wide endorsement of the benefits it confers. But it’s a fast-moving field and keeping on top of new developments is key to making the most of what’s on offer. That and understanding how best to capitalise on the volume and complexity of data collected.
As each of us knows, our work in the housing sector is never done; there’s always room for improvement. We’ll be showcasing and discussing all of this and more at our next annual conference on 08-09 March.
George Grant is the CEO, publisher and co-founder of Housing Technology.