Black mould, freezing homes and a child in hospital: Meet the housing association that stole Christmas
Mill Investigation: Riverside Housing says it provides good quality, safe housing for thousands of people. That’s not what we found when we visited its tenants.
Dear Millers — on Sunday night, a three-year-old boy called Louis Smith was rushed to Manchester Royal Infirmary after struggling to breathe and becoming unresponsive at his home in Middleton. It’s the second time Louis has been hospitalised in the past month, and the seventh time in total.
His mother Amy suspects his issues are being caused (or at least exacerbated) by the mould spreading in the family’s home. She and her two children will now spend Christmas in a city centre hotel while their landlord — the housing association Riverside — once again promises to fix the problem.
Also living in a hotel is Michaela Ali, the woman whose case we highlighted in September when she was heavily pregnant and rats had infested her flat. Michaela is still not back in her home and is being shuttled between hotel rooms with her newborn baby. Again, she is waiting for Riverside to complete what should be straightforward repairs which they promised to finish two months ago.
In recent weeks, we have interviewed a dozen Riverside tenants, from Rochdale to the city centre and down to Ladybarn. Their accounts tell an appalling story of housing deprivation and neglect.
We normally paywall this Thursday edition but we’ve decided to make it free today because we think a story like this should be read and shared far and wide. We hope some of our regular Millers will still join up as members today so that we can carry on doing reporting like this in 2024. We want to start producing videos — mini Mill documentaries — about some of our biggest stories, so our work can hit harder and spread far beyond this newsletter. Please hit that button below if you’re not a member already to help us get there.
Your Mill briefing
🏛️ Two teenagers have been found guilty of the murder of Brianna Ghey, the 16 year old stabbed to death in a park in Warrington in February. Over a four week trial at Manchester Crown Court, jurors heard how Girl X and Boy Y drew up a “kill list” of five children before settling on Brianna and shared dark fantasies about murder. Both denied the allegations and blamed each other for the killing. Brianna’s mother Esther Ghey said her daughter was “fearless to be whoever she wanted to be. She wanted to identify as a female and she wanted to wear girls' school uniform.” She went on: “To know how scared my usually fearless child must have been when she was alone in that park with someone that she called her friend will haunt me forever.” The teenagers will be sentenced next year.
🗞 An astonishing story in our sister title The Post today, which reveals a massive racism row that is tearing apart the Athenaeum club, one of Liverpool’s most historic institutions. A member of the club (a young man who is a government civil servant) has been accused by other members of brazen racism, including arguing for slavery to be brought back, sharing racist memes on WhatsApp and “giving a Nazi salute” and “thinking that others would find it amusing.” The Athenaeum denies the most serious claims, although when asked by The Post about the allegation about slavery, the club’s chairman said: “Well, that’s an opinion. This is exactly what this place is about. [William] Roscoe in 1797 created this place for people to be able to argue these issues.” It’s a must read.
🎭 Contact Theatre has announced it will be reducing its artistic output in 2024 while the theatre works out how to “create a new business model that is financially sustainable”. At the end of the financial year, Keisha Thompson, artistic director and chief executive, will reduce her working hours to one day a week and instead become director of Contact Events, a subsidiary of the theatre which exists to generate income via consultancy work and venue hire. The company says its business model “is unfortunately not now fit for purpose, in a post-Covid world, in a cost-of-living crisis, and with changing patterns in theatre audience attendance.”
🚆As part of its Network North project, The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced it will be spending £235 million of extra investment from redirected HS2 funding into… resurfacing roads in London. “We've confirmed funding for each London borough to ensure millions of road users enjoy smoother and safer journeys,” the DfT announced in a widely-mocked post (Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi said she had to check the post “wasn’t a parody”). Transport Secretary Mark Harper quickly jumped in to say he welcomed the conversation and clarified that “every penny of the £19.8 billion committed to the Northern leg of HS2 will be reinvested in the North.”
🎓 After a year-long search, the University of Manchester has now selected its next president and vice chancellor. Duncan Ivison, a political scientist at the University of Sydney, says he is “deeply honoured” to replace Dame Nancy Rothwell in her role, adding: “The scale and urgency of the challenges that our city, our region, and our world faces, requires universities like ours to harness our resources for the public good in new and innovative ways, and as never before.” Ivison will formally start his role on 1 August 2024.
🎧 Our last podcast episode of the year is out now, and it features a great discussion between Joshi, Mollie and Jack, in which we tell you more about our favourite stories of 2023 and take you behind the scenes of our reporting. Listen on your preferred listening platform here.
🎄 Christmas is less than a week away and you’re still hunting for a thoughtful, local, sustainable gift for a Mancunian friend. The pressure is on — but fear not! For the next few days, we’re offering 25% off gift subscriptions so you can give the gift of quality local journalism for just £52.50 a year. It will give someone a year of enjoyment with no planet-destroying plastic wrapping or need to fight through the Trafford Centre crowds. Plus, you can schedule the gift subscription to start on Christmas Day, so there’s no spoilers for your loved ones. Just click the link below before the offer runs out.
Our weekend to do list
⛄ At the Bridgewater Hall, the Hallé orchestra is performing the orchestral score to The Snowman while the film plays on the big screen. Perfect for a cosy evening with the family. Tickets here.
For their final party of the year, the excellent music curators at NAM are putting on a night of feelgood disco, funk and soul in the basement. Best of all, it’s free.
🎭 There’s still time to see the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Hamilton at the Palace Theatre, where we hear audiences have been much calmer recently. Tickets here.
🎨 The lovely Filipino and Malaysian cafe Yes Lah is putting on a series of art workshops to keep kids entertained during the festive season. Tickets are £50, but you’ll come away fed and watered with your own paintings and collages.
🎄 Christmas Eve
🚴 Station South, a fantastic community cafe and bar in Levenshulme, is hosting a special Christmas Eve celebration. There’s a great lineup of local DJs, plus winter cocktails and nibbles, and Christmas jumpers are encouraged. Tickets are free, but be quick, it’s selling out fast.
🩱 If you’re feeling a little partied-out, you may find a sauna in Platt Fields a soothing way to begin Christmas. £10 gets you 45 minutes to plunge into a cold pool and run into a hot sauna, plus, the Platt Fields Market Garden Kitchen will be open all day, serving delicious meals made from vegetables from the allotment. Tickets here.
Mill Investigation: Meet the housing association that stole Christmas
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
Sam Marren takes out the Slush Puppie machine he bought his kids earlier this year. He turns it in his hand to show the flecks of mould climbing up the back of it. Further into the cupboard there’s more mould, leading to the back where it grows thickest. The smell is horrible — it hits you like a wave of radiation.
Over the road, Natalie Marshall parts the curtains of her bedroom window to reveal a deposit of mould lining the top of it. The mould has begun to sag in parts and water droplets hang heavy from it like from the ceiling of a cave. Natalie is tired after a 15-hour night shift at a local care home. Her husband, Lee, has heart failure and she worries about how the mould might affect his health. “That’s what he’s breathing in,” she says, looking at the grey-blue spores. “God forbid if anything happens,” she adds, and then she starts to cry.
On Monday, back over the road from Natalie and a few doors down from Sam, a three-year-old child named Louis Smith was rushed to Manchester Royal Infirmary. He spent two days in intensive care after falling ill, apparently due to mould in his family home. When we spoke to his mum Amy last night after she got home from hospital, she said the family – including Louis and his seven-year-old sister — will be spending Christmas in a hotel room miles from their home.
All three of these houses are on the same estate — Langley, in Middleton — and all three are owned by the same housing association: Riverside.
You might remember that name: Riverside Group was the housing provider that was forced to apologise in September when we exposed its grave failings in relation to a pregnant hospital worker called Michaela Ali, who had been forced to live in hotels for months because her rat infested city centre flat had not been repaired for over a year. This week, that story has been picked up by the national media, with Ali appearing on BBC Breakfast to tell her story.
Ever since we published that piece, we have been speaking to other Riverside tenants about their experiences. Today, with four days to go until Christmas, we can reveal the substandard conditions that those people are living in, and the scarcely believable disregard that one of Greater Manchester’s largest housing providers has habitually shown towards its tenants.
‘Riverside really stands out’
Riverside was founded as Liverpool Improved Homes in 1928, “with the aim of making housing affordable to those most in need”. It now operates as an umbrella for a group of businesses that develop, let and maintain social housing, managing 75,000 properties across England and Scotland. “They were quite active in housing market renewal,” says Dr Richard Goulding, a housing researcher at the University of Sheffield, referring to the government’s drive to boost areas with low housing demand in the early 2000s. Included in these areas was Rochdale, which transferred thousands of social homes to Riverside in 2002, including Langley.
Goulding, who is from Middleton, has been running focus groups on the Langley estate recently and says one participant told him: "We don’t know anyone who doesn't have a problem with damp." Daniel Isaac, from the Greater Manchester Tenant’s Union’s Middleton branch, says “quite a lot” of the tenants who come forward to join his group are Riverside tenants. “Riverside really stands out, they’re the unanimous issue in Middleton right now,” Isaac says. The main complaints are damp and mould.
A spokesperson for Riverside said: “We are very sorry to hear about the issues raised by our residents and acknowledge that we don’t always get things right. We have committed to investing £1 billion in improving and repairing our homes over the next five years for the benefit and safety of our residents.” The housing association says it is investing £1.2m in order to improve homes on the Langley estate, following £4m of investment and 20,000 day to day repairs in the past five years.
But Riverside’s issues aren’t limited to Langley. Since revealing the living conditions of Michaela Ali, our interviews with more than a dozen other tenants have built up a picture of a landlord that is seemingly incapable of communicating and solving residents’ problems quickly. Riverside says it is committed to going “the extra mile to make sure we deliver great homes and services that [tenants] need and want”. The tenants we have met say they have experienced the opposite attitude. To quote Natalie: “they don’t care.”
And now those people are facing a bleak Christmas. Some will be spending the festive period in living rooms so cold they can see their own breath as they speak. Others will see rats scurrying around in the bins as they take their shopping in. One tenant’s newborn will spend Christmas in a hotel room while Riverside makes repairs that were supposed to be completed months ago.
A cold Christmas
Every winter night for the past two and a half years, Dave Anderson has wrapped himself in jumpers and blankets and tried to fall asleep. The radiators are turned up to the maximum setting, but the only radiator that’s warm to touch is in the bathroom. In his living room is an oil heater, offered as a temporary replacement for the failing boiler in Royle Court. That was one month ago, and the oil heater is still sitting there.
After two hours, Dave wakes up freezing cold. He heads to the living room, lies down on the sofa and switches on the oil heater, feeling it slowly warm his bones. It only seems to have one setting — boiling hot — so after two hours he’s sweating and needs to switch it off. He goes back to bed, and then the cycle starts again. Around two hours later, he wakes up.
Dave struggles with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and in the past two years, he’s suffered from persistent chest infections. His doctor prescribed him antibiotics, advising him to stay warm. He continued to contact his housing officer at Riverside, and occasionally remedial works would be completed in the boiler room, but so far, the housing group has failed to fix the problem. Although last night, they told us in a statement they have.
“We would like to apologise again to our customers at Royle Court for the heating issues they have been experiencing,” a spokesperson said. Riverside says it has supported residents by providing temporary heating and says “any additional costs incurred will be reimbursed.”
The housing association says it has been “waiting for a part required to fix the issue and the good news is that this has now been fitted and the heating is working.” It adds: “We will be carrying out a door knocking exercise to ensure everyone’s heating is working.”
“Rubbish,” Alana Eaves, a tenant at Royle Court, said when we called this morning to fact-check this claim. “Since they fit that part yesterday, none of it is working. All the radiators are off. So we’re going to be freezing over Christmas.”
Royle Court is a retirement community in Ladybarn for over 60s on housing benefits. In the communal area, Dave is blinking slowly under the fluorescent lights. His neighbour Darren Kelly has promised to cook for everyone on Christmas Day and Alana has put up festive decorations and tried to make the atmosphere feel a little more cheery.
“But it’s bloody difficult when I feel like the actual infrastructure and what you’re trying to work with is falling apart,” she says.
“It’s been hopeless, they don’t care, do they Dave?” Darren says. Dave nods. “They don’t care. They just pass it on, pass it on, we get no answers.”
‘I’m not a scruffy person’
It was in March this year that Sam Marren noticed the mould. By his bed, around his windows, in the living room, at the back of the kitchen cupboard. A worker from Evolve — a subsidiary of Riverside that maintains its properties — visited the home and confirmed there were unsafe levels of damp in the walls. Sam was told they would be back in touch but never heard anything.
A couple of months ago Evolve came and “sprayed some stuff” on the mould around his windows and wiped it away. In November, the mould returned and Sam called his landlord. “The same person who came out in March came out again,” he says. “And he told me the same thing he told me in March.” In response to our questions, Riverside says “works are now pending” at Sam’s property, and that they will be in touch with him “very soon”.
Living with mould is oppressive. The smell is constant and thickens the air. It’s also a cause of shame. “When I walk in I can smell damp and it’s embarrassing because I’m not a scruffy person, you know what I mean?” Sam says. “I tidy up after myself but, yeah, it doesn’t smell clean.”
But now, with the weather colder and the house less ventilated as the family try to stay warm, Sam is worried the mould will spread and he’s concerned about the health of his children. He’s heard about the hospitalisation of Louis Smith — everyone around here has. Sam knows Amy, Louis’s mother, and her partner. It was only recently that Amy’s partner visited Sam, and upon seeing the mould said: “fucking hell, mate, this is well worse than mine.”
The case of Louis Smith
In the early hours of Monday morning this week, Louis, a three-year-old boy, was rushed to Manchester Royal Infirmary. It was the seventh time that he had been hospitalised with induced wheezing, the first time being when he was about eight months old. The wheezing — chest tightened, sucking back air in rapid gasps — is thought to be linked to the mould in his family’s property.
On Sunday, Louis had woken up, eaten breakfast and seemed fine. His last hospitalisation had been at the end of November, and since then Riverside employees had visited the property and, to quote a statement given to us by the company, “completed extensive damp remedial works”. They were “initially satisfied” that the problems were fixed.
Last night, after getting home from hospital and beginning to pack the family's things to move into a hotel in the city centre for Christmas, Amy said these “extensive remedial works” consisted of hacking off bits of wall and depositing a thick layer of dust throughout the property, including over her and her children’s uncovered beds. She came back from the temporary accommodation Riverside had arranged and spent the day cleaning up the mess.
When Louis has an incident of induced wheezing, Amy says, it tends to develop throughout the day. By Sunday evening, she was giving him puffs on his inhaler on an hourly basis. Sometimes, this can stave it off. This time, it didn’t. By the early hours of the morning, Louis was unresponsive. Amy called an ambulance and Louis spent two days in intensive care.
Yesterday morning, Riverside’s executive director of asset management, Ian Gregg, visited the property to look at the work himself. A further damp inspection found that, despite the initial remedial works, there remained a “need for further action to tackle damp and ventilation problems.” In plainer English: they hadn’t done their jobs.
The case has an echo of Awaab Ishak, the two year old also living in Rochdale, who died three years ago today of a respiratory condition caused by mould in his family’s flat. That flat wasn’t managed by Riverside, but by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, another housing association. Ishak’s death — highlighted by the MEN — led to a review of landlord guidance surrounding mould, renewed scrutiny of housing associations, and highlighted the onus on them to bring their properties up to livable standards.
Not that Riverside tenants have noticed any benefits from those changes yet. “We’ve had a few challenges with Riverside,” a housing source at Greater Manchester Combined Authority admits. “We want social landlords to do a good job and they need to be held to account for that.” The source is reluctant to blame Riverside directly for the problems that tenants are facing, suggesting that financial issues are the root cause of a lot of issues that a lot of housing associations are facing.
In April 2016, new legislation required social landlords to cut rents by 1% each year for four years. This was seen as a win for tenants in social housing, but it reduced the income coming into housing associations. As a result, social landlords made dozens of layoffs and their budgets shrank. One of the ways housing associations can receive more income is by expanding and building more homes, but for many, this hasn’t been possible due to such a stark financial hole.
Some tenants suggest that individual housing officers have been given unmanageable caseloads. Some housing officers are said to be responsible for 400-500 properties each. (Riverside says caseloads are between 350 and 450.) A former housing officer who worked at Riverside for 11 years says that many good people work for Riverside, but the organisation suffers from poor leadership. “All tenants deserve much better,” they say. “That’s all I can say.”
Now Louis is out of hospital, the family will be moved to a hotel room. They’re booked in there for the next five weeks, meaning they will spend Christmas away from their family back in Rochdale. “We’re not going to be able to get down on Christmas Day,” Amy says. “Buses aren’t going to be running. It’s just gutting, really.”
“My daughter, she’s seven,” she continues. “She’s going to be gutted, we’ve literally been passed from hotel to hotel and messed around. She was so happy to be home with her own toys and close to school. Now we’re up and leaving again.”
Living in a hotel — with a baby
In another hotel in the city centre right now is Michaela Ali, with her newborn daughter Isla-Rae. Since we wrote about the rat infestation in her Northern Quarter flat in September, she was moved from hotel to hotel, pregnant at the time and working at Manchester Royal Infirmary as a nurse’s assistant.
When we first met her, she was told by Riverside that she would be moved back into her property within a week. This hasn’t happened. In fact, pest controllers were still visiting the flat earlier this month, as was another contractor looking for asbestos.
“I’m just plodding on,” Michaela says. “It’s all I can do.” She says she has been moved around the current hotel she’s in three times, with her child, as rooms around her have become booked up for the time leading up to Christmas. Sometimes she’ll be in an apartment with kitchen facilities, other times just a studio.
Back in September, Michaela was in a fog of fear and concern about her flat. She seemed constantly on edge. Now she just seems numb to the situation. “We just need to see where we’re going to be,” she says. “Because really, it’s about me keeping my baby safe.”
Asked for an update on Michaela’s flat, Riverside told us: “We are very sorry for the stress this issue has caused Michaela and the fact she is currently living in a serviced apartment. In addition to dealing with the pest issue, we have also fully removed and replaced affected ceilings, replastered, redecorated, have commissioned a deep clean of her flat and will be replacing the spiral staircase.” They say she should be moved back in early in the new year.
‘It just gets a bit much’
Shirley Russell moved into her flat in Royle Court in March this year. Ladybarn was where she raised her kids and it felt like coming home. The reality couldn’t be more different. The heating only came on in small bursts from 8pm and was faltering again by midnight. Black mould covered the corners in her shower. And the hot water wouldn’t switch on, so she headed to a friend’s house with a towel so she could have a warm shower.
She spent a day scrubbing the mould with bleach and soon became unwell with a persistent cough and fever. Shirley suffers from sickle cell anaemia and rheumatoid arthritis and believes her illnesses have worsened as a result of the living conditions in her flat. “I’ve had no joy since I’ve moved in here. I just can’t take this, it’s been going on too long for me,” she says. “It affects my sleep, it affects everything. Why am I killing myself for money for these, and they’re not doing one thing for me?”
Like the other tenants at Royle Court, Shirley feels her concerns have been ignored. Dave talks me through a list of contractors, subcontractors and property managers who he has emailed about the heating, each one – in his eyes at least – shifting the blame to another entity. When the tenants approach the local housing officer for help, a message is often relayed back: “I’ll pass it on.” In relation to Royle Court, Riverside says that “all mould jobs which have been reported have either been completed or set to be complete”.
Alana originally got in touch with us after reading our reporting on Michaela. She told us about a hot day this summer when she was lying in the garden and a rat ran over her chest — an infestation has broken out in the bin room, which she says hasn’t been addressed. On the day of our visit, Alana was nowhere to be seen. “Sometimes it just gets a bit much for me living here, to be honest,” she says on the phone. Riverside says a pest control contractor visits Royle Court every two weeks — which seems to tell a story in itself.
Another resident called Anne Keary has been in a dispute with Riverside after refusing to pay her service charges. Her logic is this: why should I pay for services I’m not getting? Recently, fearing eviction, she has started paying the charges again, but she’s angry about living in a cold flat and believes she and her fellow residents deserve better treatment from a housing provider that claims to be looking after the elderly. “Thank you,” she says before we go. “We’re so grateful somebody’s listening.”