The tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in December 2020 shook the social housing sector.

Here was a little boy who died because of prolonged overexposure to mould in his one-bedroom flat in Rochdale – a death that was entirely preventable. Social landlords were suddenly forced to confront the reality that mould, which had often been dismissed as a minor health risk in certain quarters, could have fatal consequences if left ignored.

Till Eichenauer

Till Eichenauer

The coroner said that Awaab’s death should be viewed as a “defining moment” for the housing sector. So, three years on, where are we?

Last year, the government published the first wave of data collected about the extent of damp and mould across social housing. Many landlords were praised for their speed of response following the fallout from Awaab’s death. However, the report still outlined that around 3% to 4% of four million social housing homes in the UK had at least some notable damp and mould, while 1% to 2% had serious damp and mould. Damp and mould remain an issue for at least 200,000 social housing homes. According to a recent Opinium survey, the number of people affected could be far higher, with 850,000 people with children under the age of six living with a serious mould problem.

Worryingly, the most vulnerable in society continue to suffer disproportionately, with social housing tenants reporting substantially more cases than private registered residents. In part, that is one of the driving reasons for the proposed introduction of ‘Awaab’s law’, which would see social housing landlords in England forced to repair mouldy properties much more quickly.

But treating mould issues quickly is much easier said than done. Among the main reasons social housing continues to suffer from the menace of mould are slow and inefficient communication channels. Assuming a social housing tenant does report mould, the road to resolution can be long and tedious. Overstretched local authorities often struggle to handle, triage and resolve the volume of issues that are reported across their portfolios. In turn, a lack of immediate response from councils may leave tenants feeling disillusioned with the process, and less likely to report problems in the future.

So, how can local authorities quickly and effectively handle complaints from tenants? Quite simply, through artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. As the world debates the practical applications of AI, here is a clear and pressing use case: speeding up the resolution of potentially lethal mould issues through smarter communication.

AI has the capacity to reduce and resolve mould problems in two obvious ways.

The first is by helping social housing landlords to efficiently handle the large volume of inbound communications from tenants. Much more than a ‘chatbot’, an AI-powered digital assistant can receive, log, respond to, triage and manage complaints flagged by tenants. Plus, this kind of technology can deal with routine issues such as booking contractors, tracking progress and keeping tenants informed.

It all means that more straightforward, but often time-consuming, issues can be dealt with quickly and efficiently – including cases of mould – rather than relying on manual processes. This type of AI-powered technology can also elevate the more serious, complex issues for the attention of a council team, ensuring their time is focused on critical problems.

The second way that AI has the potential to reduce and resolve mould problems is through prevention. Alongside our digital assistant, we recently introduced our outbound communication offering at askporter. In collaboration with housing providers, this tool is designed to automate mass communication, ensuring key processes are followed, actions taken and all contact efforts logged, to help both building managers and tenants increase effective communication.

In the battle against mould, technology can support things like damp and mould surveys, share information and tips with tenants and facilitate welfare appointments for repairs and checks, with the intention of avoiding callouts for non-serious issues. By automating two-way communication at scale, facilities and property managers can give tenants key information on how to avoid damp and mould and deal with smaller cases.

Of course, AI cannot eradicate the problem of mould altogether – not yet anyway. However, by supercharging communication between social housing landlords and tenants, this technology can help prevent future issues, save local authorities precious resources and ensure tenants see their landlords taking the problem of mould seriously.

As Awaab’s law continues to progress through the political and judicial system, AI is undoubtedly the most efficient way for social housing landlords to respond to the menace of mould.

Till Eichenauer is managing director at askporter