Tenants who have faced damp, substantial leaks and black mould are calling for Scotland’s largest housing association to take action to address what they claim is an unacceptable repairs policy during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Their appeal to Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) was backed by tenants union Living Rent. It comes as GHA parent company, the Wheatley Group, is criticised for making extensive use of the furlough scheme.
Glasgow Housing Association is a not-for-profit company renting out more than 40,000 properties.
It is part of the Wheatley Group which operates in 19 local authorities across Scotland and is a joint owner of Glasgow’s City Buildings.
But since the start of the pandemic GHA and other Wheatley Group housing associations have been operating a ‘life and limb‘ repairs policy, claiming that government restrictions mean that workers are prohibited from entering tenants’ flats.
Living Rent says that while it and its members “stand 100 per cent by the duty of care that employers have to their workers”, it disputes Wheatley Group’s position that this duty “means limiting repairs to all but those which if unaddressed pose a direct risk to life”.
It claims tenants have been left facing issues which could leave their landlord in breach of housing standards legislation.
The Ferret spoke to GHA tenants who had waited for over a year to have issues such as serious black mould and water ingress addressed, with the pandemic cited as a reason for the extreme delays.
They claimed their physical and mental health had been affected by the unaddressed problems in their homes, and the stress caused as a result.
One key worker for a nursing home who lives in a GHA flat in the south of the city, said that she discovered mould and fungus growing all over her ceiling in February after wallpaper, put up just months before, started to peel away.
She phoned the housing association in February but it it was deemed not to be an emergency repair, and by March no-one would come out to address it as Covid-19 restrictions hit.
“I phoned every month after that, and I’ve told them I was concerned about my health,” she said. “It was right along the wall and in the bathroom too. The cement was coming off the walls. Sometimes it was so wet I could write my name in it.
“But they wouldn’t even come and take a look at the outside. I’m a strong person but I have to admit, with everything that was going on at work, coming home to that for almost a full year has had an impact on my mental health.”
Eventually, after the issues were escalated by a family member, an electrician was sent out in September. Repair men sent subsequently by GHA found that the downpipe from the neighbour’s bathroom had corroded, leaving water gushing through a hole into her flat.
Letters have since confirmed that the repair has been done, and though her walls have still not dried she has been “assured” affected rooms will be re-plastered and re-decorated.
Wheatley group said in a statement that it fixed the problem in September but a 4 December video she shared with The Ferret showed her mouldy and crumbling walls
“I’ve been paying £440 a month with council tax on top all year to live in a flat with water running down my walls,” she said. “And I don’t really understand how they can justify people on furlough for so long.”
Others have struggling to get damp problems resolved including Dee McCourt, from the northwest of the city, who has signed a joint letter to GHA calling for action.
She first noticed black mould on her bathroom ceiling more than a year ago and says the walls are now damp and crumbling.
A new bathroom has now been promised and she will be moved into a new flat while the work is carried out. But she claims it should not have taken so long.
“I’ve been phoning for months and they kept on saying they couldn’t do anything because of lockdown,” she added. “I know there is a pandemic. But issues like damp and mould are a risk to people’s health.
“To say they are only doing emergency repairs for all of this year feels like an excuse. It felt like they were fobbing me off.”
A spokesperson for the Wheatley group said it is providing “a full repairs service, except in some limited circumstances where it is unsafe to do so”.
They added: “Despite the challenges of keeping customers and staff safe during the pandemic, we’ve carried out no fewer than 47,000 repairs in Glasgow since March.”
The concerns were raised as recently published documents – originally requested by The Ferret under freedom of information legislation – revealed that 647 staff across the group were furloughed under the UK Government scheme. They included 67 employees of GHA.
Board papers show that Wheatley Group had secured salary contributions worth almost £4m from the furlough scheme by August
The company claimed this was necessary due to a projected rise in rent arrears of two to four per cent from March 2020 to March 2021, with a potential loss of income of nearly £5m.
The board papers stated that the use of furlough means it has been able to reduce proposed rent increases of 3.5 per cent to under 2 per cent.
Living Rent said this did not go far enough and called for Wheatley Group’s furlough savings to be passed on to tenants, and a rent freeze to be put in place in 2021.
An independent housing professional working in Scotland claimed that while it may have been legal for housing associations to claim furlough, the intention of the scheme was to help those experiencing immediate loss of income rather than organisations like GHA.
The Ferret has agreed to protect their identity in order to mitigate against professional repercussions.
They added: “Questions must be asked about whether the organisation could have delivered better services to tenants by keeping more staff working, built on some of the good work it did for tenants through thinking more creatively about contributions that staff could make to wider efforts in the city to support those experiencing the consequences of Covid, or redeployed more staff towards using the period to building ready for the post Covid period.
“GHA should consider whether it hand back the money gained through furlough, or better still redirect it through its own foundation to those of its tenants hit hardest and still most at risk in this pandemic, particularly perhaps those for whom the furlough scheme was not enough to stave off job losses.”
James Roberts, of Living Rent, also said the number of staff furloughed raised questions.
He added: “Our members who are Wheatley Group tenants have been asking throughout the pandemic: where is the money going? A whole range of services and support relating to cleansing, anti-social behaviour and repairs, among others, were immediately cut back by Wheatley Group in March.
“Yet tenants have still been expected to pay full rent – regardless of the state of disrepair many of their homes have been left to slide into, or the difficult personal circumstances the pandemic has left them in.
“It adds insult to injury for our members and their neighbours to hear that Wheatley Group have made big savings on their wage bill as well as on services.
“Wheatley Group’s savings must be passed on to their tenants. Our members demand an immediate return to pre-pandemic service provision and, at the very least, a rent freeze for 2021-22.”
A spokesperson for Wheatley said it had acted quickly to respond to the pandemic, allocating £800,000 to services such as EatWell, which has seen 28,000 emergency food parcels delivered to tenants in need.
The company also pointed to its Emergency Response Fund which has helped over 5600 tenants by providing essential household items.
They added: “Throughout the pandemic we have done more than any other housing association to support communities and people in need across the country.
“As soon as the virus struck, a new service model was designed and launched, enabling us to enhance our services so we could help the most vulnerable people.
“Staff who were placed on furlough were mainly back-office staff and any frontline staff who were furloughed were predominantly shielding.” Others, is claimed had been redeployed into frontline emergency roles.
They continued: “Our staff at Wheatley have worked tirelessly to support our vulnerable customers. Many tenants have expressed their gratitude for the help they have received and staff have been recognised widely for their incredible efforts.”
Cover image thanks to iStock