‘I had to smash up mouldy furniture’ - Landlords hit with 10,000 complaints

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Thousands of private renters have complained about their squalid living conditions to Suffolk councils in the last five years, we can reveal. 

An investigation by this newspaper has found that councils have received nearly 10,000 complaints about private landlords since 2016, with almost 2,000 lodged across 2020 and 2021 alone.  

Local authorities were given powers by the government to prosecute bad landlords in 2016 for renting out unsafe homes, or fine them up to £30,000.  

But despite families facing dingy and even dangerous living conditions, Suffolk councils are reluctant to enforce against those responsible. 

They say prosecution is a legal “last resort” for the worst landlords who have failed to engage with other processes — and stress that “informally” working alongside them is the more effective and affordable option for taxpayers. 

‘My landlord never faced any pressure’ 

But Maria Pisaturo, a 35-year-old living in Needham Market with her two teenage boys and four cats, disagrees. 

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She said she wished councils had more funding to crack down on unresponsive landlords and “protect tenants” — and not just the “worst” cases. 

The former wedding planner stopped working when her health deteriorated four years ago, leaving her unable to walk without severe pain in her legs. 

Maria has not used her living room for months. Everything is in boxes to protect it from the mould

Maria has not used her living room for months. Everything is in boxes to protect it from the mould - Credit: Sarah Burges

She moved into the three-bed house in 2019 after a divorce, looking for a “fresh start”, but claims problems with mould, defunct radiators, cracks in the ceiling and poor insulation plagued her time there – leaving her cold and depressed for two winters in a row, and experiencing panic attacks for the first time in her life. 

Last year, she said had to smash up £1,500 worth of furniture because it was caked in mould. She claims she tried in vain to resolve the situation by running a dehumidifier every night, causing her electricity bills to soar by £200 a month. 

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

There are cracks in the ceiling at Ms Pisaturo's home, which have not been fixed by her landlord

There are cracks in the ceiling at Ms Pisaturo's home, which have not been fixed by her landlord - Credit: Sarah Burgess

She complained about conditions to her local authority, Mid Suffolk Council, in October last year, but claims this was never followed up, and she was only asked to send over pictures of the damage a month ago. 

In the last five years, Mid Suffolk Council has not prosecuted a single landlord. Neither has neighbouring authority Babergh. 

They said this was because prosecution was only necessary if landlords did not rectify hazards when they are identified.

"We work with landlords and offer support and advice to help them resolve any issues, ensuring properties are safe for tenants and their neighbours", their spokeswoman added.

East Suffolk and West Suffolk Council, meanwhile, each prosecuted three landlords during that time, and fined nearly a dozen between them.  

Ipswich Borough Council, unlike its more rural counterparts, is the outlier. In 2017 it used its new civil penalties policy to fine two rogue landlords, and since 2016 has taken 33 of them to court. 

But Ms Pisaturo claimed in her case, her landlord Justin Bahar "never faced any pressure” to improve conditions at her home. 

‘Let down by everyone’ 

The 35-year-old said the landlord promised to lower her ceilings in April 2020 to improve insulation. In November of that year, he reiterated in a text that fixing her heating was a “priority”. 

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

Maria Pisaturo is living in a mould ridden house in Needham Market PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

But after another year of “desperate” calls and texts to Mr Bahar and his workman – and attempts to get the letting agent, Hamilton Smith, to speed things up — Ms Pisaturo said the issues remained unresolved. 

Eventually, in September last year, she was handed a no-fault Section 21 eviction notice by her landlord, who she claims told her he was selling the house because the repairs were too costly. 

Her family is now facing homelessness because "no estate agent will touch her” due to her reliance on benefits. 

Both the landlord and Hamilton Smith declined to comment, while Mid Suffolk said it would not comment on individual cases. 

“I just feel like I’ve been let down by everyone”, Ms Pisaturo said. 

And it’s not just landlords facing criticism.

Sadie Beevis, her partner and their kids, who live in Long Melford, claimed their letting agent William H Brown was only now taking action after a long wait to resolve the mould and damp in their two-bed house at The Drays. 

“It’s so bad it looks like there’s been a house fire”, the 43-year-old said. “We’ve been sleeping in the living room on a mattress since November because the damp in the bedroom was making us ill.” 

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

William H Brown said staff took action "as soon as the issue was reported to them", and had been actively communicating with the landlord on behalf of the tenants throughout.

They said the issue causing the mould had only been identified before the first lockdown, which had led to delays, but that treatment works were now booked in for the coming March. 

“I rang the council about the state of the house last summer”, explained Ms Beevis. “But they just told us to resolve the issues directly with the landlord, and that they couldn't help us.

"We were left to deal with it all on our own."

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Family living with mould problem in Long Melford flat Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

'We wouldn't rent out a property we wouldn't live in ourselves'

John Pitts, Chairman of the Eastern Landlord Association, said he believed "bad landlords" were in the minority - and that his 1,400 members all provided high quality homes for their tenants.

He stressed if one of them was found renting out squalid accommodation they would be excluded from the association.

"All rented homes should be warm, comfortable, fit for human habitation and free from hazard, whether that's private, council or housing association stock", he said.

"I know I personally would not rent out anything to anyone I wouldn't be prepared to live in myself."

Inspections and improvement notices fall dramatically 

But while rogue landlords are in the minority, we discovered through a Freedom of Information request that in the last three years West Suffolk, Ipswich, Babergh and Mid Suffolk identified 249 ‘Category 1 Hazards’ — which are those posing a serious threat to someone’s health and safety — in private rental accommodation. East Suffolk Council said it was unable to provide the data. 

We also found that council inspections following renters’ complaints are lower than ever. 

In 2016-17, 38pc of all complaints made to Suffolk councils about landlords were followed up with inspections. By 2021, this had dropped to 7pc. 

The number of Improvement Notices being issued, which force landlords to remove a hazard or fix general disrepairs, is also falling.

While Suffolk councils issued 53 of these across 2017-18, the number dropped by almost half during 2020-21. 

Councils explained these figures by saying complaints were “thankfully” resolved without formal inspections or needing to issue improvement notices, while Covid restrictions required minimising contact with people and identifying defects via pictures and video. 

East Suffolk Council said there is no requirement to record inspections on their systems, so actual numbers are likely to be higher.

Councils also said they are required by law to invite the landlord or letting agent to the inspection if someone complains about them.  

When this is relayed to the tenant, many retract and pull out of the inspection. Homeless charity Shelter put this down to tenants being fearful of “revenge evictions”. 

'Previous landlords left the place to rot'

But Allan Tregenna, 45 and living in a “derelict” HMO in Exeter Road in Newmarket with three housemates in their 60s and 70s, said he was sceptical about how effective "light-touch" approaches were.

'We really wanted the council to force our landlords to bring the place up to scratch", he said.

After complaining to West Suffolk Council last summer, the HMO was inspected by Environmental Health and Mr Tregenna's landlord, London-based J S Corporation, was given an improvement notice. 

Malcolm Manners, 71, has been in the HMO at Newmarket for 11 years

Malcolm Manners, 71, has been in the HMO at Newmarket for 11 years. He said successive landlords have never cared about the place - Credit: Sarah Burgess

Works included fixing a gaping hole in the ceiling caused by a leak, restoring the hot water connection to the bath and making sure the boiler was capable of heating. 

But four months later, only some works have been carried out. One of the uncompleted points was to carry out checks on fire safety, which involved re-servicing fire extinguishers and replacing the key lock on Mr Tregenna’s bedroom door. 

Saud Yousaf, the co-director of J S Corporation, said all the works would be completed in due course. 

He said when he bought the property at auction in July 2021, he had no idea there were tenants in it. 

Robbie West, 69, has lived in the property for 25 years. He said his window has been broken and wedged open for over a decade

Robbie West, 69, has lived in the property for 25 years. He said his window has been broken and wedged open for over a decade - Credit: Sarah Burgess

The fire extinguishers have not been checked since 2018

The fire extinguishers have not been checked since 2018 - Credit: Sarah Burgess

“Previous landlords have left the place to rot”, he said. 

“We did our best and spent thousands improving the place, but in order to do a proper job we’d need the tenants to move out for three months.

"When we told them this, they said they didn’t want to leave because they had nowhere else to go.” 

He explained some of the works had been postponed because the new landlords had planned to put the house back up for auction, deciding the project was too much of a feat. 

But the day before the auction was due to go ahead, on February 17, they withdrew it. Mr Yousaf said this was because they wanted to “do it up” as a proper HMO for the tenants, and that the company was in the process of submitting relevant documents to the council to prove the property needed vacating while works are carried out. 

Mr Tregenna, however, said the tenants did not feel like they should have to leave their home while the landlords carry out "a few repairs".

“The council has seen the state of the place and even gave them an improvement notice, but they’re not putting any pressure on the landlords”, he said. 

The leak from the boiler upstairs had created a gaping hole in the ceiling downstairs at the HMO

The leak from the boiler upstairs had created a gaping hole in the ceiling downstairs at the HMO - Credit: Allan Tregenna

The hot water is not connected to the bath at the HMO

The hot water is not connected to the bath at the HMO - Credit: Sarah Burgess

A West Suffolk Council spokesman said: "The case is still open and we will be carrying out a follow-on inspection to check works have been completed.  

“Outstanding matters will be reviewed in line with the legislation and council’s enforcement policy. 

“Should the tenants need to move and have nowhere else to go, we would offer them emergency accommodation.” 

Tenants said the floor of the boiler cupboard had rotted away due to a leak

Tenants said the floor of the boiler cupboard had rotted away due to a leak. The new landlords put down a temporary plaster board to cover the hole - Credit: Sarah Burgess

What has the government said? 

A spokeswoman for the Department for Levelling Up said councils should be using the powers they already have to crack down on negligent landlords. 

But they said the department was proposing a national landlord register in England which would further “hold landlords to account” by seeing rogue ones banned from the list, and a legally-binding ‘decent homes standard’ for the private sector for the first time ever. 

Osama Bhutta, Director of Campaigns at Shelter, said it was “no surprise” councils were struggling to enforce against poor landlords given the “chronic underfunding” from government. 

He said: “It’s important local authorities are able to step in when things go wrong but they need to be adequately funded so they can carry out enforcement activity.” 

Also in this series:

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