Housing Law Series: Part I – Awaab’s Law: A Turning Point in Tenant Rights and Housing Standards?

Taruniga Thambiayah, Publications Editor and Contributor of the UCL Student Pro Bono Committee.

Having been inspired by the recent changes within the housing sector due to media outcries and exacerbating factors such as the cost of living crisis, this housing series will be discussing the various legislative reforms that are being introduced or are pending progression in Parliament. Hopefully, this series will showcase how and why the housing crisis has arisen in the UK and what legislation is doing in an attempt to curtail its disastrous consequences.

Housing Law Series: Part 1

At the heart of these transformations lies Awaab’s Law, a landmark legislation aimed at ensuring the safety and decency of homes nationwide. Born out of tragedy following the untimely death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak, who suffered in a moldy, damp dwelling despite numerous complaints to Rochdale Borough Housing, this law represents a significant step forward in holding social landlords accountable for the conditions of their properties. By mandating prompt repairs for hazards such as damp, mold, and fire safety concerns, Awaab’s Law seeks to elevate housing standards through becoming more protective over tenant’s rights.

The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023: A Call to Action
Enshrined within the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023, Awaab’s Law imputes an implied term within every social housing tenancy agreement mandating that social landlords must investigate and rectify serious hazards within specified time frames [1]. The primary objectives of this legislation is to strict obligations upon landlords to ensure the welfare of the occupants, impose severe penalties in regards to non compliance including unlimited fines thus ensuring timely action is undertaken to address hazardous living conditions. While the exact durations are yet to be determined, this legislative drive towards accountability and improved housing standards is long overdue. Insecure housing is not merely a matter of inconvenience; its consequences ripple far and wide, impacting individuals, families, and communities alike. The recognition by the Coroner’s report on the aftermath of Awaab death demonstrated the negative effects hazardous living conditions have on both mental and physical health. Especially as most affected by these conditions do not have the liberty of moving homes to rectify the issues caused by indecent Housing Standards, the negative effects associated with being ‘stuck’ in such an environment should not be diminished. This includes stressors such as low income, fear of debt, damage to possessions from damp and mould, stigma, and social isolation [2].

Proposed Timeframes
The consultation on Awaab’s Law includes introducing new strict time limits for social housing providers to take swift action in addressing dangerous hazards such as damp and mold. The consultation outlines the proposed time frames as requiring social landlords to investigate hazards within 14 days, start fixing within a further seven days, and make emergency repairs within 24 hours. Opponents suggest that implementing these legislative changes that reach all 29 Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHRS) violations becomes too costly for landlords to comply due to the predicted massive influx of complaints. It should be noted however that due to the lack of protective legislation afforded to tenants over the years and without legislative or regulatory accountability, landlords have been able to commodify the housing market with little due regard to tenant welfare.

‘It’s not a lifestyle’
The consultation report written by the Housing Ombudsman [3] conceded that everyday tasks such as cooking a meal, having a hot shower and putting clothes out to dry are now considered part and parcel of living in one’s home and NOT a discretionary activity. Shifting the blame towards landlords providing accommodation that have structural issues and inadequate ventilation, I believe is very long overdue as these propositions seeming intuitive to most. Indeed in the case of Awaab, residents of the Rochdale Borough Housing were shamefully blamed for the hazardous mould within the affected properties.

Navigating the Renter Reform Bill: Bridging the Divide
Alongside Awaab’s Law, the Renter Reform Bill stands as a beacon of hope for tenants seeking greater security and protection in the private rental sector (PRS). Yet, progress has been slow, leaving many to wonder when tangible changes and implementation will materialize (especially with the undecided factor of where political will is predicted to lie after the General Election this summer). One of the Bill’s key objectives is abolishing ‘no-fault evictions’ with the removal of Section 21 notices, which instill fear in tenants and deter them from reporting issues. As we await further developments, the urgency of comprehensive reform grows ever more apparent. Indeed, due to the fear of being served a ‘no-fault’ eviction, the private sector has shown shocking signs of disrepair exceeding those found in the social housing sector. This is further exacerbated if the household is in receipt of housing support such as Universal Credit or Housing Benefit as there is less flexibility in being able to move homes due to DSS. Whilst these bans are unlawfully discriminatory, the prevailing mindset amongst private landlords is to steer clear of DSS tenants.

Indeed, recent statistics [4] show how in the PRS, a staggering 21% of homes fail to meet decent standards, compared to 10% in social housing. Moreover, the prevalence of Category 1 hazards – the most severe – is disproportionately higher in the PRS, with 12% of properties affected compared to just 4% in social housing. When it comes to damp, a particularly insidious hazard, the divide is stark (from those surveyed): 9% of PRS homes suffer from damp, while only 2% of social housing units report the same issue.

Whilst the Housing Act 2004, was introduced to slightly regulate the PRS, these cannot be affected with the threat of s.21 notices overhanging. Although the Act places duties on Local Authorities to review housing standards and provide assessments to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) especially regarding high scoring category 2 damp and mould hazards, the lack of reporting from tenants due to fear may indicate a much larger issue within the PRS statistics. Whilst the Decent Homes Standard was included within the committee stages of the Bill, it is hoped that the PRS will follow suit in setting out stringent timeframes given the attention garnered by Awaab’s law. Thus, without the ability to vindicate one’s rights due to fear, protections afforded to tenants becomes obsolete.

Whilst there has been a recent boom in action regarding the housing sector, it is disheartening to see that these changes come on the back of such a tragic incident. The media outcry from Awaab Ishak’s death has caused lawmakers to face the reality of a severely deregulated housing sector where landlords have been able to commodify the sector. Indeed the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 was also heavily influenced by the tragic event of Grenfell 2017. Abridging the gap between housing standards and public health concerns should now be seen as essential in affecting longer lasting changes within the area.

[1] Clause 42, Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023
[2] Health inequalities: cold or damp homes, House of Commons library, 2023
[3] Housing Ombudsman Spotlight report on damp and mould (PDF, 662 KB) [4]https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/chapters-for-english-housing-survey-2022-to-2023-headline-report/chapter-4-dwelling-condition

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author. They are for informational purposes only and do not reflect the official policy or position of UCL SPBC. 

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