Having come back from maternity leave at the end of 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, I threw myself deep into work and embraced being able to assist vulnerable people again. Perhaps being a new mum, my empathy levels were on a high, and as a new mum in a pandemic, I felt even more sensitive of the needs of others. I felt a new feeling of utter selflessness and the need to look after and care for those who needed assistance, especially vulnerable clients who have had every door closed on them by their landlords.
At the beginning of this year I opened up a file for a pregnant lady who not only lived in a property with poor housing conditions, but who also suffered with mental health conditions, was a victim of domestic abuse and was completely disregarded by her landlord, a housing association.
The issues were aplenty and mainly concerned cracks in the property, rotten window frames, damp and mould in the property. The cracks were so severe in the property that rainwater penetrated into her home and caused mould and damp throughout. For years she reported these issues to the landlord, who either disregarded her complaints, downplayed the severity or just simply ignored her and failed to take action. Even when they sent their contractors to the property, they simply ignored how serious the issues were. When she was able to plead for a change to her windows, they were undertaken whilst she remained in the property despite her severe asthmatic condition. The combination of her health condition and the sheer level of dust resulted in my client being hospitalised. She had to escalate this matter and the conduct of the Housing Association to their Chief Executive, with the support of social services and her mental health team, but even that was disregarded – and her only hope was to commence litigation, which is never an option tenants like to go for.
Once I commenced work for this client, we located evidence to show that the housing association was aware of these issues before her tenancy had even commenced. So for the past 6 years my client had lived in not just unsuitable property conditions, but a home that the housing association were fully aware was not habitable and had serious issues. This pregnant woman was being left to live in a property not suitable for her, let alone suitable for a newborn, which was becoming more and more of a concern in this case.
By mid-March matters in the property became substantially worse and the condition deteriorated following and escape of water following a leak from the upstairs neighbours property, which began to trickle waste water into my clients home. Over the course of the next 3 months my client who was in her final trimester of pregnancy was moved from her home into hotel accommodation, then temporary accommodation, then another accommodation all whilst on crutches and being severely unwell both mentally and physically.
Sadly my client was hospitalised due to reduced foetal movements, and whilst in hospital I battled with the housing association to ensure she could remain in her current temporary accommodation following discharge from hospital after giving birth. Eventually, with the support of her medical practitioners and following the advices of her GP, they accepted that she could remain in her temporary accommodation and they would not force a move to yet another property. Over the course of the next 6 weeks, whilst my client was recovering from the birth of her child who was delivered by caesarean section, I was able to reach an agreement whereby my client was offered a permanent move, compensation and the replacement of her furniture that was ruined by the serious issues.
Whilst this seems like a win and success for many, it is nonetheless a fraction of the suffering that she had to sustain through 6 years of hardship, deterioration of health, both physical and mental as well as bouts of hospitalisation.
In my experience, many tenants, in particular social tenants feel that because they are in receipt of benefits, or because they are in rent arrears, they shouldn’t say anything, and they shouldn’t complain or raise it further with the landlord; much of it a fear of the unknown and what may come if they do. As a result, in many cases when tenants are simply not standing up enough for their rights, Housing Associations are getting away with this kind of behaviour because they are not being held accountable for their actions.
When I speak to new clients, they are sometimes fearful of bringing claims against their landlord because they have either been threatened with rent arrears and court action, or because they have waited so long for a social tenancy, that they would rather put up with no heating or hot water, damp and mould than take their landlord to court.
Since the pandemic, tenants are also worried about letting contractors and housing officers into their homes for the fear of breaching rules, or for the risks of spreading Covid. However, others who do seek assistance from their landlords are simply told because of Covid, no action can be taken. This is not just misleading, but also untrue. Landlords cannot use the pandemic to absolve themselves of responsibility.
Tenants need to start asserting their rights and seek justice for what is theirs and what they are entitled to. Seeking advice is the essential first step towards finding out what your rights and your entitlements are.