By Toby Oliver- Clarke, BA History
‘Engaging, lively, and endearing’ are words that have been used to describe many a two-year-old. Commonly the description given by a proud parent, teacher, or Nanny, they’re words which evoke images of a happy, secure child. Only in this case, they’re the words of Joanne Jearnsely, the Coroner tasked with investigating the death of Awaab Ishak, a two-year-old boy who died from ‘chronic exposure’ to toxic mould. Whilst shocking, Ishak’s death has become an all too familiar reality for many people of colour living in neglected, dangerous social housing.
“Whilst shocking, Ishak’s death has become an all too familiar reality for people of colour living in neglected, dangerous social housing.“
Prior to the investigation into Ishak’s death, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (the housing association responsible for the management of Ishak’s home), had claimed that his death was the result of ‘ritual bathing habits’ and the family’s lifestyle. As the inquiry progressed, it became clear that this defence was not only false but was an insulting and racialised attempt to blame Ishak’s death on his already grieving parents. As established by the inquiry, true blame for his death lies squarely with the Housing Association, particularly when one considers the following three points: Firstly, following an inspection carried out on the 14th of January 2020, the landlord had been warned that the flat was deemed ‘unfit for human habitation.’ Secondly, the association had received a letter from Ishak’s NHS home visitors who warned them that conditions in the house posed a threat to Ishak’s health. Finally, the association itself had stated the mould was so severe that it could only be remedied by a trained professional. The points raised above paint a picture not just of obstinate ignorance, they point to willful negligence on the part of the landlord, and, ultimately, the willful endangerment of a child’s life.
Despite the epidemic nature of our social housing crisis, one element always seems to be obscured in its coverage, the racialised nature of unfit housing. ‘Lessons learned’ is a phrase which has become hollow following a death at the hands of unfit housing. Lessons were apparently learned after 72 people died in the fire at Grenfell Tower; lessons learned after Sheila Seleoane was found decomposing in her home; and lessons learned after one-year-old Exodus Eyob fell from his flat window – despite repeated requests from his mother to have the window fixed. Nearly all these victims have one key thing in common, they are black. Whilst this may seem like an unfortunate, but insignificant, coincidence, race plays a key role in the deaths of the people listed above. As previously mentioned, the Housing Association responsible for Ishak’s house blamed the death on the lifestyle of his family, in particular, their ‘ritual bathing habits’.The word ‘ritual’ reveals much of the thinking behind those making up the Housing Association; its use points to backwardness, ignorance, and a sort of tribal obstinance on the part of the family. Of course, what the word really points to is a deeply held yet unspoken belief that, in spite of all the proven neglect on their behalf, and all the mitigations that were ignored, somehow, the family had it coming.
Whilst I’d love to write this article with the certainty that Ishak’s death will be the last of its kind, history begs to differ. The systemic racism which runs through the housing sector is more prevalent now than ever, and with a Tory government committed to the construction of poor quality and high quantity social housing, I fear we’re only starting to see the worst of our social housing epidemic. Michael Gove, The Secretary of State for Housing, has written to local councils calling on them to ‘dramatically raise the bar,’ whilst this might seem like an encouraging step forward, to me, it feels like Groundhog Day; the momentary, fleeting clarity that comes before a sudden tragedy. Whilst only time will tell whether meaningful, substantial change is made to our broken housing model, readers can rest assured knowing one thing is certain – ‘lessons will be learned’.
Photo Caption: Awaab Ishak (Credit: Family handout/PA).