Damp and mould is a critical problem for social landlords to deal with, but tech-driven automation and AI hold the key to tackling it effectively, argues Till Eichenauer
Three years ago, Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman, argued that residential landlords “should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to damp and mould.”
His point was not that cases wouldn’t occur, but instead that these should be handled swiftly, efficiently and effectively.
Blakeway’s comments were part of a Housing Ombudsman Spotlight on damp and mould, which set out 26 recommendations, based on hundreds of investigations across 142 landlords.
The backdrop to this spotlight report was the highly publicised and tragic death of Awaab Ishak, aged two, in December 2020 as a result of untreated mould in a one-bedroom social housing flat in Rochdale.
The tragedy suddenly thrust the issue into the mainstream, and showcased the potentially fatal consequences of mould and damp problems left unresolved – particularly for those in social housing.
The coroner said Awaab’s death should be a “defining moment” for the housing sector, so three years later, how have things changed?
Early last year, the government published its findings from evidence submitted by social landlords about the extent of damp and mould in tenants’ homes, and their approach to tackling it.
Although the death of Awaab saw the introduction of “Awaab’s Law”, and many landlords praised for taking steps to address the issue, the report still found that an estimated 3-4% of four million social housing homes in the UK have at least some notable damp and mould, whilst 1-2% have serious damp and mould. Damp and mould remains an issue for at least 200,000 social housing homes.
An Opinium survey published by the Independent in December, suggested that the number of people impacted could be much higher. The survey found that 3.4 million (38%) people in the UK with children under the age of six are exposed to mould, either frequently or occasionally, whilst 850,000 of those are living with a serious mould problem – equating to 10% of all parents with children under six.
Tellingly, local authorities and social housing tenants continue to report proportionately more cases than private registered providers and residents. It begs the question as to why that’s the case?
Of course, the UK is particularly susceptible to damp and mould problems. The effects are exacerbated by the wet, humid climate and the much larger volume of older buildings compared to other countries. But, two further problems contribute to the issue as well – particularly within social housing: lack of reporting and stretched resources.
The health risks associated with damp and mould are dire, primarily affecting the respiratory system, but also extending to the eyes and skin. However, these impacts are often tolerated by those living in social housing because communication channels with the local authority are slow and inefficient. Coupled with a fear of losing their access to affordable housing, social tenants often choose not to report the issue.
Assuming a social housing tenant does report damp or mould, the road to resolution can be long and tedious. With council resources stretched thin, logging, assessing, prioritising, and resolving complaints is typically a long and drawn out process. A lack of immediate response from councils may leave tenants feeling disillusioned with the process, and less likely to report future problems.
So, how can overstretched local authorities quickly, efficiently and effectively handle complaints and communication with tenants? AI and automation hold the key.
Automation and resolution
At askporter, we recently introduced our outbound communication offering. In collaboration with housing providers, this tool is designed to automate mass communication, ensuring key processes are followed, actions taken and all contact efforts logged, to help both building managers and tenants increase effective communication.
This tool can handle multiple outreach needs such as annual gas safety checks, surveying to improve the asset register, annual service charges, and rent increases. However, a priority for us is assisting residential and social housing owners and operators in responding to dangerous damp and mould problems – particularly at this time of year.
The best solution is prevention. Our platform supports damp and mould surveys, shares information and tips with tenants, and facilitates welfare appointments for repairs and checks, with the intention of avoiding callouts for non-serious issues. By automating mass communication, facilities and property managers can give tenants key information on how to avoid damp and mould, deal with smaller cases, and escalate more significant cases, plus, save significant time for council teams.
Added to this, we’re also changing inbound communication. Instead of relying on inundated council teams to respond, our AI-powered digital assistant can receive, log, triage, and manage complaints. Our technology can elevate more serious, complex issues for the attention of a council team, whilst dealing with everything else; booking contractors, tracking progress and keeping tenants informed.
This kind of automated two-way communication not only helps prevent future issues, and save local authorities precious resources, but it also ensures that tenants know their landlords are taking the problem of damp and mould seriously; it builds trust and opens the door to help tackle the issue together.
AI was one of the buzzwords of 2023, in large part driven by the launch of ChatGPT. This is no gimmick however. For social housing, tech-driven automation and AI hold the key to tackling one of the biggest problems facing owners and operators. Technological solutions like our own can free up time for local authorities, support tenants and resolve issues in a fraction of the time it may otherwise have taken.
At the start of the new year, it may be tempting for social housing landlords to maintain the status quo or bury their heads in the sand. However, with damp and mould complaints on the rise, owners must meet the problem head on. With new tools available to tackle an old problem, it’s time that landlords started exploring what AI could do for them, for the benefit of everyone across social housing.
Main image: Till Eichenauer is managing director at askporter
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