Unreal estate

Is the Mould in Our Homes Being Taken Seriously Enough?

Lefteris Iosifidis has had poor luck while renting in Dublin.

After he left his flat in East Wall, he spent two months searching for a place, eventually signing a lease on a flat on Mountpleasant Avenue in Ranelagh and moving in in June. But soon he realised there was another occupant of the studio flat – black mould.

After a week living in his new place, he began to feel unwell.

“Initially I thought it was the water from the pipes, because it was extremely dirty,” he says. “The landlord actually visited the flat and promised he would change things. He said he would paint the walls, which were already flaking because of the mould, and he would clean the place. Of course, that didn’t happen.”

When Iosifidis returned from Greece after a two-week vacation, his flat was still in the same sorry state, he says. “The cutlery and the appliances were rusty, there was mould in the fridge, mould in the cupboards,” he says. “I cleaned all that on my own with bleach.”

By August he’d had enough. His symptoms had worsened over the summer, but they soon cleared up, he says, once he’d moved out of Ranelagh and in with friends in Ballymun.

Iosifidis reckons it was the black mould that made him sick, and he, like others, thinks it’s a problem not taken seriously enough in Dublin.

Bleach and Bleach Alone

For some of us, it’s a common occurrence in our apartments and houses, the black spores appearing and reappearing ad nauseam.

Mould can appear for a number of reasons: poor ventilation or poor insulation, keeping the windows shut and allowing moisture to build up or not using the extractor fan when cooking.

Iosifidis says his flat on Mountpleasant Avenue was in an old house. The landlord, an elderly man, was perhaps unaware that simply painting over the mould wasn’t the solution.

Mould is, after all, a health hazard. It can cause skin rashes, induce coughing and eye irritation as well as blur ones’ vision, according to the National Institutes of Health in the States.

While painting over it wouldn’t solve the problem, neither would Iosifidis’ bleach, says Anne Millar of Inspex Solutions, a company specialising in inspections of accommodation.

Landlords, tenants and homeowners need to understand more about mould, Millar says.

Bleach won’t solve a mould problem, she says, and the root cause of mould – poor insulation or poor ventilation – needs to be addressed before anything else. How one goes about that is somewhat trickier.

It often devolves into a blame game, with the tenant and landlord each trying to avoid responsibility for the mould, and for the changes necessary to get rid of it and keep it away.

Millar says the way to deal with this is to get an independent inspection. But how hard is it for inspectors to tell whether mould occurs due to the habits of tenants or due to a dwelling’s structure?

The Temperature Factor 

The number of complaints about damp or mould from local-authority tenants to Dublin City Council has increased in recent years: they were up 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, and are on track to rise even further in 2016.

There were 1,337 complaints in 2012, 1,610 in 2013, 1,583 in 2014, and 1,697 in 2015, according to statistics from Dublin City Council. Between the beginning of this year and the end of October, there were 1,508 complaints.

The council was unable to provide a breakdown of causes for these damp and mould complaints. In the past, though, it has for the most part put the blame for mould on tenants.

In May 2015, the council said that 97 percent of the complaints it had received about damp were due to condensation rather than leaks or structural problems, and so they were the fault of the tenants, according to an Irish Times report at the time.

Not everybody agrees with this assessment, though. When Community Action Network, a Dublin-based community development NGO, asked architect William Scott to look at who was to blame for mould and damp in council dwellings he came to a different conclusion.

Scott found that it was not the tenants’ fault, but the fault of the outdated housing they lived in.

In his report, he noted that the five-storey buildings had inadequate insulation and their design meant there were “troublesome thermal bridges” that affect flows of hot and cold air and so can cause condensation.

Past refurbishments and changes in social norms since they were built have had an effect too. “The result is excessive heat loss, the strong likelihood of extensive condensation and mould conditions and the real risk of adverse effects on health of residents,” the report said.

Very few of the council’s five-storey blocks have been upgraded since they were built so as to prevent the reoccurrence of mould, says Scott.

Another study, from 2010, of the York Street flats, carried out by architect Joseph Little, found that the building structure meant “an increasingly high risk of surface condensation forming regardless of the actions of the tenants”.

In a table accompanying the report, Little sets out what the science says about the many causes of mould and which party or parties are responsible.

“There is considerable evidence that in many cases the occurrence of condensation and mould is outside the control of the tenants and in many, if not most, of the other cases the responsibility is shared with the landlord. The sole responsibility for dealing with repairs should therefore not be attributed to tenants,” the report says.

(Little also notes how it’s parties who are off-stage, such as developers and the government who may have caused the problems, yet owners and occupiers are left to deal with them.)

Scott says Dublin City Council’s starting point of blaming tenant behaviour is unreasonable. There may be situations in which a tenant is exacerbating the problem, but it’s “extremely difficult”, he says, to prevent mould from coming back in the blocks that he looked at.

(Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t get back to queries about the reports before publication.)

Heat escaping and cold entering – which can cause mould growth – is largely eliminated in newly built housing, says Scott.

“Having said that, if you’ve a building that doesn’t have adequate ventilation and a moisture build-up, nothing will stop condensation and mould occurring,” he says. “The problem of mould is significantly with the older stock or with very poorly designed current standards.”

How to Fix It

For social housing, a small dedicated working group might work well to tackle the issue of mould and to make recommendations within councils, says Scott.

Others suggest that changes in how we deal with mould are also needed for those living in the private rented sector.

Duchesne Colbert, who rents a shared house in Marino, says she has been trying to get her landlord to deal with mould for almost two years, with hearings complicated by a series of disagreements over access to the house, and a cat, and a rent increase.

She first reported the mould appearing on the walls of a large front room in January 2015. Now, there is also mould in the bedrooms, and a ruling from the Residential Tenancies Board found that a lack of ventilation was responsible. “Nothing’s been done,” she said.

Millar of Inspex Solutions says that there needs to be more rigorous and transparent inspections of homes in the private rented sector. Both education about the causes of mould and enforcement on substandard dwellings are key, she said.

“You have a huge amount of stock that was built before 1990 which is when the [building] regulations were brought into the market,” she says.

“So you have a lot of stock that doesn’t comply with current regulations, so really what they [the local authorities] are trying to do is build a framework. What we often say is it [rigorous inspections] is about keeping people safe in the properties.”

As it stands, the inspections of properties conducted by local authorities aren’t transparent enough and aren’t necessarily up to scratch, says Millar.

Stephen Large from the national housing charity Threshold says that different local authorities take different approaches in how they raise awareness about standards, respond to complaints, and enforce the rules.

He thinks the solution to that lies in a kind of NCT for dwellings – something that Threshold has campaigned on for years.

“You have vulnerable groups, families, low-income households and migrants, and given market rents, if you’re paying market rents for severely substandard accommodation, you’re entitled to a much better standard,” he said.

The inspections of dwellings, where mould may be identified, are rarely made public, he says. “Our experience, unfortunately, is that a lot of the households feel they have no option,” he says. “They can report it, but the landlord may or may not do anything about it.”

This needs to change, and the “magic sponge” solution to tackling mould — giving the wall a few wipes with Fairy liquid — is no longer an option, says Large.

An independent national body could take the perceived pressure or responsibility off the tenant, he says, and therefore place it more firmly on the local authority, which is responsible for carrying out inspections and addressing complaints.

Cónal Thomas portrait
Cónal Thomas

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at cthomas@dubinq.com

 

Comments

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  2. Christine
    5 January at 22:54

    I developed COPD from mould in a house I once lived in. I had chronic lung infections recurring pneumonia and eventually was diagnosed. Most of it was in the ceiling as I kept the rest of the house clear of it. After I moved to dry tropics it cleared and I have healthy lungs now. I think there needs to be health department checks on all properties as there are for smoke alarms and abcestos.

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