The Guardian published the story of Telan Stone a couple of weeks ago, and I would imagine like most viewers, I was saddened and appalled by her story. As an adviser on the Shelter Scotland helpline, we see snapshots of this despair every day. Too often, however, the misery of the individuals is lost in a busy working day and often it takes something like this to allow us to reflect on the real impact of poor housing on the most vulnerable in our society.
I watched the video a few minutes before the onset of a long day of calls, many from desperate people looking for nothing more than the basic need of a decent home for them and their family, made the family’s misery even more palpable.
The Shelter Scotland Helpline receives calls every day from families housed in unsuitable, overcrowded accommodation, both in the private and public sector. Condensation damp and mould is one the most frequently raised problems and one of the most difficult to advise on.
Landlord and tenant law provides little in the way of a solution for tenants suffering condensation damp. Landlords will frequently blame the lifestyle of tenants’ for the problem. In reality, families often feel they have little choice but to remain in their unacceptable conditions.
Private tenants have little security of tenure and fear that they could face eviction the moment they challenge their landlord. On top of this, changes to housing benefit rules introduced last year mean that poor families have financial access only to the bottom 30% of the private rented housing market. Together, the picture is grim for many of the most vulnerable in our society.
There are, however, things that people can do in this situation. Tenants in Scotland are entitled to ask their landlord for a home which has appropriate ventilation (as a house which cannot be properly ventilated and as a result suffers from dampness may not be habitable), adequate insulation and can be heated at a reasonable cost. Utility companies such as Shelter Scotland partner Scottish Gas, even have free support for landlords to make improvements as painless as possible. Ultimately the local Council Environmental Health Department may also take action against your landlord if the problem is so severe that it is prejudicial to health.
Temporary accommodation is in short supply and mounting a legal challenge to allocations of temporary accommodation can be very difficult. However, Scottish Councils should allocate families with children temporary accommodation which has “adequate bedrooms”, a living room and adequate cooking facilities; there are some exceptions (particularly during the first 14 days of temporary accommodation).
Certainly, these are all rights that we would recommend and advise tenants to enforce and, if you are in doubt about your rights, the Shelter Scotland Helpline would welcome your call.
But surely more could and should be done to address this desperate situation. We need stronger obligations on landlords to remedy condensation damp in properties, more security of tenure and better support to meet the needs of private tenant, stricter quality standards for temporary council accommodation and, perhaps most importantly, an increased supply of quality socially rented housing. Obviously, in these straightened times, asking for more money is always a difficult question. However, for those who have seen Telan’s story, it would take the most heard-hearted individual to say that she, and the thousands of other children like her, would not be worth it.
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