England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Awaab Ishak’s death shines light on racism in housing

It is a sad but well-known fact that housing in our capitalist society is routinely costly, precarious and insecure. But it is also a system that can prove to be fatal. In December 2020, Awaab Ishak’s young life was cut tragically short due to unsafe mould in his home just before his second birthday, as we commented on recently.

What is as enraging as it is heart-breaking is the number of missed opportunities to have prevented Awaab’s death. His family first began complaining about the mould in their flat back in 2017, but they found that their pleas for help were repeatedly ignored by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), the company responsible for managing their estate. Faisal Abdullah, Awaab’s father was initially advised to simply “paint over the mould” – advice which proved grossly inadequate given the mould’s scale and severity. In a statement, Awaab’s family described how they had “complained so many times about the mould in our home but they did nothing to help us – we shouted as loudly as we could, but despite all these efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem. Nothing was changing.” 

Frustrated that their pleas were falling on deaf ears, the family resorted to taking legal action against RBH, a process they described as “gruelling”. In July 2020, an NHS health visitor came to the family’s flat, and was disturbed by the mould which now blackened every room of their home. She subsequently wrote to RBH expressing her concerns about Awaab’s living environment and the potential impacts upon his health, and advised that the family were immediately moved to a more suitable property which was mould-free. But even following her request, RBH did nothing, later blaming their inaction on the health visitor’s letter being stored on the wrong IT system.

Racism built into Britain’s housing system 

The appalling lack of empathy exhibited by RBH is mirrored by the experiences of an ex-employee who, in an interview with Sky News, described the company’s culture as “horrible, bullying, toxic for the employees”. He added that in his view, RBH were “not fit for purpose at all. The total disregard for the tenants and cost-cutting was so obvious.” Staggeringly, it has now come to light that RBH received no fewer than 106 complaints about damp or mould in the space of a year. The callous attitude is also reflected by pinning the blame for poor conditions on the tenants themselves. 

In her inquest, coroner Joanna Kearsley found that the landlord had overemphasised Awaab Ishak’s family’s “lifestyle” as the main cause of the mould, and, to add insult to injury, that some RBH workers even went so far as to blame the mould on the Sudanese family’s “ritual bathing” habits, due to the presence of a bucket on the floor. This blatantly racist insinuation is echoed by the family’s testimony, who stated that they had “no doubt that we were treated in this way because we are not from the country”, adding that their treatment at the hands of RBH had left them feeling “absolutely worthless”.

Sadly, the discrimination faced by Awaab and his family is all too common, and is symptomatic of the endemic racism hardwired into Britain’s housing system. Even according to official figures, those from non-white backgrounds are far more likely to have experienced problems with damp and mould, with mixed Caribbean households having a 13% chance, and Black African tenants having a 9% chance. This stands in stark contrast with those of White ethnicity, who have just a 3% chance of mould and damp issues. A recent study by Heriot-Watt University found that 1 in 3 black workers at risk of homelessness had experienced racial discrimination at the hands of a landlord – a figure 6 times higher than that of the general population. 

More than 1 in 10 Asian workers had faced discrimination from their landlord; a figure twice that of the general population. There are also clear parallels between Ishak’s case and the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy, where 85% of the victims were from non-white backgrounds. An LSE study reported that tenants from minority ethnic backgrounds were left far more vulnerable to dangers such as fires, with their homes less likely than white households to include vital safety features such as fire alarms. Lee Chapman, a survivor of the blaze, described how he felt he and other residents were treated as “sub-citizens or sub-class” by the block’s management, with their urgent requests for fire hazards to be addressed repeatedly ignored and viewed by management as the actions of troublemakers or “rebel residents”.

Racism rife in social housing

Last year, ITV carried out a series of reports investigating poor living conditions in the social housing sector. A pervasive systemic racism was found to be at the core of many hardships faced by tenants, which one woman likened to a bad stain that was hard to remove. A management employee at a London council felt compelled to come forward as a whistleblower by the racist attitudes and remarks she had witnessed from colleagues on a daily basis. She stated that racism was “rife” in council management, with the majority of employees unable to relate to non-white tenants due to their own backgrounds, which were routinely white, middle class and wealthy. 

She described how colleagues would regularly make assumptions and pre-judgements based on tenants’ races, religions and even surnames. She said that she would often hear staff mock or dismiss tenant complaints, with those of a non-white or migrant background frequently blamed for squalid living conditions. She recalled one occasion where a Chinese tenant called to report a blocked sink, and the manager “turned around said ‘look at their name, it’ll just be full of rice, tell them to clear it themselves.” 

A strong anti-migrant sentiment also reportedly permeated the working culture at the council management, with some staff saying that non-white tenants had no right to complain, as “they should be grateful because ‘imagine what they’ve come from’”. In meetings, some staff would even stress that “we need to speak to housing and tell them residents have to live like English people live, and not abuse our properties. If they don’t want to live like us, they can be evicted and go back to where they came from.”

Unfortunately, this ugly racism is echoed in the stories of tenants failed by councils tasked with their protection. Hamedi Mahamed, a mother who fled persecution and torture in her native Kenya, endured severe disrepair and squalor in her home for over two years, with water regularly pouring through the ceiling and onto electrical wires. She recalled how when she tried to raise a complaint she had been told by one council worker that “you could go back” – a statement which left her feeling that the council “think I’m nothing”. 

Meanwhile, Leroy McNally’s flat was plagued by mould blackening the walls and ceilings, and by constant leaks in every room. But despite contacting the council “countless times”, his pleas for help were largely ignored. He explained to the ITV reporter that he believed this was due to his ethnicity, as he found that when he rang the council and used his first name, he “got a feeling that puts them on the off-foot because straight away they’re thinking: ‘Leroy – black person, we don’t want to deal with this person.’” McNally subsequently had a better response from council workers when he stopped using his first name when contacting them.

Tory government of housing crisis  

Despite Michael Gove’s performative outrage following Awaab Ishak’s death, the reality is that Sunak’s crisis-ridden Tory government pretends to give to the working class with one hand while actually robbing us of our rights with another. Workers in Britain are already saddled with a housing system that is grossly skewed in favour of landlords, many of whom sit on benches as Conservative MPs and councillors. But the government plans to add another layer of injustice in their proposed overhaul of the housing enforcement rules. 

Under the government’s “updated” version of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), used to guide environmental health inspectors visiting properties with dangerous conditions, inspectors will be told to focus more on the “lifestyle” of tenants, and consider “behavioural factors” when deciding whether to take action against unscrupulous landlords. Damp and mould could be blamed on the tenants’ failure to use sufficient heating and ventilation methods, such as central heating, extractor fans and open windows. Insultingly, inspectors will also be asked to determine whether tenants “are exposing themselves to excessively low temperatures due to ignorance, a ‘stoic and often embedded’ attitude to cold, or ‘desire to reduce carbon emissions’”. Structural problems such as collapsed ceilings could be blamed on “improper use of shower curtains and ‘lack of caution when bathing’”. 

Unsurprisingly, the Tories have vehemently denied that their “revised” guidance will result in watered-down protections for tenants. But experts say otherwise, with Professor David Ormandy, one of the original developers of this system, expressing his concerns the draft guidance would excuse bad housing, lead to more people getting ill and even dying, and that it “opens the door to blaming people’s lifestyles for really serious problems”. Far from improving the toxic victim-blaming culture which so direly needs to be addressed, the Tory government plans on embedding the hurt even further into a broken housing system which already leaves so many workers powerless and voiceless in the face of their all-powerful landlords.

It is abundantly clear that this Conservative government is unwilling to take the necessary steps to prevent more incidents like that of Awaab Ishak’s happening again. And with the government aiming their venom against migrants and refugees in recent weeks, it is now more urgent than ever that we as workers resist any attempts to divide us. The housing crisis in Britain affects us all – with working class people of all ethnicities facing poor conditions, high prices and very few rights as renters. That is why we stand in firm solidarity with all workers brave enough to fight back against a cruel and unjust housing system, whether this is through tenants mobilising in renters unions against corrupt landlords, or boldly supporting Enough is Enough’s demand for decent homes for all. 

We need to fight urgently for immediate steps make housing safe – including repairing damp and mould, replacing dangerous cladding and installing decent insulation. Big building companies should be brought into democratic public ownership and a programme of council house building carried out to provide affordable, high quality, environmentally-friendly housing that is fit for purpose. 

As we have highlighted previously, the housing crisis is inherent when housing is left to the capitalist market. Only when workers unite and organise against the ruling class’ profit drive will we be able to transform our housing system from the current one of squalor to one where families of all backgrounds can not only survive, but flourish.


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