Condensation, damp and organisational culture
Improving the response to complaints of damp and mould in tenants’ homes
INNOVATION & IMPROVEMENT
Consultant Researcher, Campbell Tickell
Following media stories of poor-quality social housing with serious damp and mould issues, Campbell Tickell recently facilitated an online networking session, attended by more than 40 members of our CEOs’ WhatsApp Group. This focused on how the housing sector should improve its response to tenants and a summary of the key points raised are discussed here.
Prevalence of issues
Participants described the prevalence of issues of damp and mould in their properties. For example, one attendee discussed a case that recently made the news, in which a resident’s property, now overcrowded, had developed damp and mould multiple times. The resident had no realistic chance of being rehoused due to the pressure on waiting lists. The organisation responded to each complaint but identified no physical defect. Staff attended the property every six months, providing advice for preventing damp alongside washing walls and repainting, but the issue continued to reappear. The resident became frustrated, understandably, and opened a disrepair case. An independent specialist reviewed the property and identified no property defects.
The resident took their story to the press after the case failed to resolve their concerns. This has caused reputational damage for the housing association, and staff feel terrible that they have failed a resident. Since the story, the organisation has sought a more proactive approach. Examples of proactive steps to identify and address problems from other participants included:
- reviewing all historic customer engagement related to damp and mould issues;
- explicitly requiring contractors conducting stock condition surveys to report any evidence of condensation or damp;
- installing sensors to enable residents to understand which actions can contribute to condensation problems;
- the use of a third-party mould ‘coach’ to work with residents encountering serious problems.
Follow-up improvements include improving building ventilation.
Responding to tenants
Responses to issues of condensation and damp by various social landlords is, and has been historically, inadequate.
Staff may determine the cause to be a ‘lifestyle issue’ when obvious building defects cannot be found. Tenants are then provided with advice on how to reduce the likelihood of condensation. The landlord may close the repair order without ensuring the problem has truly been resolved. If the problem persists, tenants may be blamed for having failed to make the necessary changes.
This form of response is unsatisfactory. In the worst case, it consists of handing out a leaflet and considering the organisation’s responsibilities fulfilled. It does not resolve the underlying issue and fails to recognise the complexity and interconnected nature of problems with damp in social housing.
Social landlords must consider why tenants may not be able to adjust their living environment. Damp often occurs in overcrowded homes, where heavy use of bathrooms and other facilities unavoidably creates conditions for increased condensation. Tenants may be reluctant to ventilate or run fans or dehumidifiers for fear of larger heating bills. Staff should seek to find affordable practical resolutions.
Cases should not be closed until the problem has clearly been resolved. Responses should be proactive, incorporating technological solutions where possible, such as dehumidifiers and sensors, that can produce alerts when humidity rises too high. Empowered tenants can then identify what actions contribute to increased condensation and reduce them.
Mould and damp should be treated as seriously as other health and safety issues, such as gas and asbestos. Adapting properties to reduce the likelihood of damp must be accepted as part of standard housing management.
Keeping registers of all properties with identified damp and mould issues can also be used to monitor responses and track performance.
“Mould and damp should be treated as seriously as other health and safety issues, such as gas and asbestos.”
Poor responses to tenants raising issues can also indicate wider organisational cultural issues. Labelling problems as ‘lifestyle issues’ can result in a sub-group of customers that staff effectively deem acceptable to ignore, indicating poor customer care.
A cultural shift may be needed in some social landlords, to place sufficient emphasis on listening to tenants and engaging them in discussions about their property.
In some organisations, staff, including repairs operatives, complete customer engagement training, including specific courses, such as trauma informed approaches. This aids empathetic responses to customer concerns. Strong tenant involvement, such as co-created tenant communities, can also be a positive way of ensuring a culture in which staff and tenants work together to solve issues.
Frequently observed traits across cases
Finally, attendees noted two factors that were present in a significant proportion of cases.
First, poverty. It is important that solutions acknowledge and take account of the role that poverty can play in mould and condensation issues.
Second, diversity. There are concerns that many of the tenants whose issues have been raised through news coverage are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds. Research to investigate what is driving this should be considered.
Director, Campbell Tickell
Take a careful look at your current approach:
> Are you ignoring customers by labelling their damp/mould reports as ‘lifestyle issues’?
> Evaluate prevalence by counting indirect reports (e.g. repair orders in which damp/mould/water penetration play a part) as well as direct reports of damp/mould issues.
> Make a clear statement about your commitment to monitoring and engagement with ongoing cases and ensure your processes reflect that commitment.
> Ensure that your approach considers the relevance of poverty and diversity issues and manages the prevalence of the issues appropriately.