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On a recent Monday afternoon in Ballybough House, Martin Heeney pulls back the wardrobe beside the window in the room he shares with his son, and points to a fine fuzz of black mould carpeting the corner.
In the living room, the wallpaper has started to peel. In the kitchen, the tiles began falling off two weeks after they were put up a few years ago, he says.
The mould has taken hold of the hallway over the door, the bathroom, and his granddaughters’ room, where his daughter scrubs the ceiling down with bleach regularly.
In the cupboard under the kitchen sink, there’s no wallpaper or plasterboard covering up the black layer or the damp earthy smell it brings.
Heeney has lived here with his children and grandchildren for about twelve years, and for two years he’s been on the transfer list to be moved to another council property.
“When we moved in there was a smell of must, and in winter we really noticed it,” he says. Two years ago, the council put in vents “but the guy from the council said there was no point. I was just fooling myself.”
The council is working to address ongoing issues with mould and dampness in housing stock, according to a presentation given by Senior Executive Engineer Shane Hawkshaw, at a recent housing committee meeting.
But on the ground, some are still living in unhealthy conditions. Heeney says he’s been reporting mould to the council since he moved in, but it’s never been properly fixed.
The council is trialing different ways to deal with mould and condensation, from ventilation systems, to insulation, and anti-microbial paint.
At Oliver Bond House in the south inner-city, the council plans to upgrade 12 homes this month to improve ventilation, said Hawkshaw, in his presentation. They also plan to put in new windows and doors, and layers of Inducoat, he said.
If the trial is successful, the council plans to request funding to upgrade all 396 units in the complex, the presentation said.
The council didn’t respond to queries about Ballybough House: whether it tells incoming tenants about previous damp and mould, what its plans might be, and its response to tenants’ concerns about health issues.
“They put up plaster board and plaster over it,” says Heeney, and peels away a corner of wallpaper, exposing the mould beneath it.
“Dublin City Council needs to up its game,” says Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe.
But mould is complicated. It can be an issue with the building, or can come from condensation from cooking or showering, Cuffe says.
“We need to provide more information to tenants,” he says. “A clear one-pager on what you can do about mould.”
Heeney says he keeps the windows open all day and night, nearly all year, except in winter, “but it’s drafty”.
He used to clean the mould off and repaper the walls, but now he doesn’t bother. He’s too embarrassed to invite family or friends over. It just keeps coming back.
“They told us it was from us breathing and putting up our washing,” says his daughter Larissa, sitting in the living room with him. “They say it’s on us that we don’t open the windows. They won’t help with the damp or the overcrowding.”
There are seven of them living in Heeney’s flat: himself, three children, and two grand-children.
Larissa’s younger daughter, now two, has been suffering with bronchitis since she was six weeks old, she says. But their GP wouldn’t give them a letter for the council, saying the damp had nothing to do with it, and it wouldn’t help their case anyway, she says.
“Not all the flats in Ballybough House have it, but some do,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Gaye Fagan. “A lot of the issues are probably from overcrowding. [The council is] supposed to fix it, but there’s no guarantee it won’t come back,” she says.
In the Pipeline
Heeney used to live downstairs in a one-bedroom flat with his kids, and says he saw his current flat before they moved in, and even then the wallpaper was peeling off, he says.
“We got a new door four years ago, but I had to put a handle on it because it swells up so much,” he says. The new handle means he can pull the door harder, but sometimes he says people need to kick it to get in.
“I keep going up and complaining. I’m showing them pictures but they’re not even looking. It’s like they don’t really care,” he says.
If the situation is so bad that a family’s health is at risk, they need to be moved, says Cuffe. He hopes they would be prioritised, he says. “We have problems with many of the old blocks.”
Complaints about mould in social-housing stock are long-running. There were 1,337 complaints about mould in 2012, 1,610 in 2013, 1,583 in 2014, and 1,697 in 2015, according to council figures.
Many council homes need a deep retrofit, says Cuffe. “But the money for this is slow in coming from Minister Eoghan Murphy. I hope the government understands the seriousness of the situation. These stories are heartbreaking.”
Says Heeney: “When the new tenants come in the places are like palaces, but I’m paying rent. Everything is always in the pipeline.”