A woman with potentially terminal lung disease who claims it was due to being exposed to mould in her rented home has demanded the government empowers victims to take rogue landlords to court and “hit them in the wallet”.
The woman, who is in her 50s, said she may have as little as 18 months to live. A medical expert she engaged in a legal action against her landlord believes her illness was likely triggered by moulds within her home caused by disrepair. She now requires constant oxygen via mask or nasal catheter and is on the waiting list for a lung transplant.
The tenant, who asked not to be named but the Guardian will call Jane, urged the government to fund private renters to claim damages from bad landlords. She gave an interview from her home surrounded by oxygen cylinders, whirring air filters and a bottle of morphine to quell the pain.
Jane decided to speak out after the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from respiratory failure resulting from mould exposure at his parents’ rented home in Rochdale. She warned the lack of legal aid for victims to claim compensation over personal injury gives bad private landlords the green light to treat potentially deadly mould casually.
The social housing ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, has warned there could be more deaths from landlord failures, writing in the Guardian today: “I have acute concern this could happen again.”
Jane is among 320,000 private renting householders in England suffering with mould and condensation problems on top of the 116,000 in social housing like Awaab’s family, according to government figures. She pays about £1,400 a month in rent.
She described how after, several years of asking her landlord politely to fix leaks causing mould in the house where she brought up two school-age children, she finally “let rip” after returning from a holiday to find it had crept up walls and curtains and across the carpet in one child’s bedroom – “a living, creepy, black mass of grossness”. But she claims the problem was not fixed for two years, by which time her illness was well established.
A medical expert employed by Jane has concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, she developed hypersensitivity pneumonitis which causes severe lung damage “by her exposure to moulds within her home”. That claim is set to be tested in court.
The disease is triggered by certain dusts, including moulds, which trigger an immune reaction, inflaming and potentially destroying the lungs, the expert said.
She also issued a direct challenge to Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, to formally join her own case against her landlord, saying: “How about setting a precedent and doing something to enable people in this position to make claims. Unless [landlords] get hit in the wallet with punitive damages, nothing is going to be done.”
She said Gove should join her legal claim as an interested party on the basis that her illness alone will cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds and victory would fire a warning shot to negligent landlords. The most serious hazards in private rented homes, including mould, are estimated to cost the NHS £340m a year.
Last week Gove announced he would cut funding to social landlords who ignore complaints. “This government will always act to protect tenants,” he said.
There is currently no national regulator of private rented homes, leaving council inspectors to police the sector. The delayed renters’ reform bill, which will create a new single renters’ watchdog, will not become law until next year.
“There isn’t the equality of arms there is supposed to be,” said Daniel Fitzpatrick, a solicitor who sits on the Law Society’s housing law committee. He explained limited legal aid is only available for forcing landlords to make repairs when there is a serious risk to health but not for claiming damages.
“The prevailing law is clear, but there is no enforcement because it’s impossible to access the legal system,” said Jane. “My case is probably one of the few that has a chance of going through and setting the precedent.”
A government spokesperson said: “Nobody should have their health put at risk by landlords who provide unsafe housing, and this government will do everything it can to protect tenants. Legal aid is available for a number of housing issues, including for people at serious risk of harm due to housing disrepair and there is free online advice to check eligibility.”
Jane said she tries to stay positive and hopeful despite her diagnosis, but “sometimes I feel quite angry”. She became tearful when talking about the impact on her children.
“I am actually more worried about my kids [who were seven and 14 when the leaks began],” she said. “They have been exposed during the time they were still developing and we don’t know what the long-term effects could be, in terms of increased chance of things like cancer.”
Jane said she first discovered mould in her family home as a result of a broken roof tile, leaking conservatory and defective guttering – which all caused damp and mould in the following years.
“I kept notifying the landlord about the mould and he was very happy for me to keep cleaning it off and didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “He would do a temporary repair, and the builder would say ‘this won’t last long’, and then the temporary repair would come undone and you’d be chasing the landlord again.”
Her legal claim alleges she contacted the landlord about the damp and mould with at least four letters over several years on top of numerous phone calls, but the landlord breached the tenancy agreement by failing to fix the problems causing personal injury.
She and her daughter returned from a holiday during the problems to a “horrific sight when we opened the box room”. She said mould was everywhere – up the walls and curtains and across the carpet.
“That’s when I really kicked off at the landlord,” she said, saying previously she had been “very polite”.
“I just let rip down the phone and cleaned and cleaned and cleaned,” she said, claiming it still took him another two years to fix the problem.
In summer 2018, after struggling with her breathing since around 2012, she collapsed in the street. Tests showed her lungs were taking in reduced amounts of oxygen, and her bronchial walls were thickening. Her claim argues the mould and/or mycotoxins within her home that most likely caused her illness “would have been mitigated, or avoided completely, but for the defendant’s … failures”.
The landlord declined to comment on Jane’s claims while “the matter is before the court and subject to ongoing litigation”.
Jane says her plans to leave the property were repeatedly stymied by financial problems and her increasing illness, but her message to anyone else who finds mould in their rental is now clear: “Remediate it completely 100% or run; get out of the property.”