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California Law Gives Tenants New Recourse For Moldy Apartments

Karina Villanueva shows KPBS and Voice of San Diego photos of the dark mold underneath her sink Nov. 20, 2014.
Brian Myers, Media Arts Center San Diego
Karina Villanueva shows KPBS and Voice of San Diego photos of the dark mold underneath her sink Nov. 20, 2014.
California Law Gives Tenants New Recourse For Moldy Apartments
Until 2016, the state didn't consider mold a condition of substandard housing.
Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Marc Whitham Shares His Experience With Mold
Marc Whitham, a tenant rights attorney, describes his experience renting a moldy apartment in 2007.

I speak from personal experience because even before I was an attorney, when I was studying for the bar, I lived in a property that appeared OK. When I moved in it looked fine. A woman who lived in the same apartment complex and was a friend of my wife's contacted us and came over one day and said, "I would like you to take a look at my apartment if you could." And I said, "I'm busy. I'm studying for the bar." And she said, "I know. I didn't want to bother you, I just, I went to court today and I feel really badly because I tried to defend my case and I lost and now I'm being evicted and I'm going to have to move." And I said, 'I'm sorry to hear that. What can I do?" So I went over. I looked at this place and she had lived in the property probably between 12 to 15 years. And when you walked into this property, it smelled incredibly bad. I was like sticking your head underneath a moldy sink or, you know, something like that. The whole property reeked of mold. And it was visible from the floorboards all the way to the ceiling in certain rooms. The corner where her son was sleeping was just black as could be and the mold was out of control. And, uh, I was shocked. I said, 'It sounds really remarkable that you would go to court and show photos and there wouldn't be any sort of relief. And she said, "Well, I didn't have an attorney. I tried to represent myself and the judge just didn't want to hear it because the landlady said I just didn't want to pay the rent and was a deadbeat. And he basically didn't even care about the mold." And I said, "I wish you would have contacted me. Maybe I could have done something to help." And she said, "Well, the reason I'm contacting you now is because I want you to know right before you moved in the apartment that you live in looked just like mine and all they did was paint over it." And I was astounded. I couldn't believe it. I walked back to my apartment and I began to take a look around and I looked behind the kitchen sink – I got under there and peered up – and sure enough there's black mold growing up underneath my kitchen sink. I looked in the bedroom and spots were starting to appear on the bedroom walls. So I contacted the property manager and said, "I have an issue here. I need to know what's going on." The landlady said, "Oh, we'll send somebody out." And they pulled out the kitchen cabinet and there was a tree growing into it. Literally the roots of this tree were completely just wrapped into this cabinet and the foundation below. And what I learned was that the sprinkling system in this property was – the foundation was beneath it so the water was constantly running down into it and it was wicking up through studs right into my apartment. So on two different sides we were surrounded by complete moisture. And then on the other side there was faulty plumbing that was leaking and had never been repaired, and there was mold there, too. I was working with an attorney at the time – again, I wasn't in tenant rights or anything. I sent a demand to the landlady. I said, "I need to know what is going on. When did you know about mold? Was your property ever flooded in the past, previously? And I withheld some of the rent. But before I even did that, I called the city and I said, "Can I get some help here? I'm looking at a serious issue and I've seen some mold in this building and it's bad. It's not just me. It's other tenants that are affected. I talked to other tenants out there and several of them also had similar problems." And no, they wouldn't take any interest. They wouldn't get involved.

It's one of the most frequent complaints among California tenants, but until this year there was little they could do about potentially hazardous mold in their units.

Now, state law considers mold a condition of substandard housing.

That means for the first time, renters can report mold problems to the city, which can demand repairs and fine landlords who don't comply.

Marc Whitham is a tenant rights attorney who said he gets calls about mold on a daily basis. He said until last month, renters had little recourse but to move.

"There are areas like City Heights and Barrio Logan where there are many, many moldy properties," Whitham said. "And it's just like, 'If you don't want to live here, you're free to move and I'll find somebody else.' And they do — especially if they get a sponge with some Clorox and then throw a fresh coat of paint on."

Whitham said the problem is particularly bad in low-income communities, but he sees it across income brackets and was a victim of it himself.

"You're not looking for every little defect under the sun and you might not notice that mold for several weeks or even months," Whitham said. "By then you might open your closet and find all sorts of things are ruined, they're just covered in mold. You lose mattresses."

Mold is also linked to asthma and other respiratory problems. In a 2015 KPBS and Voice of San Diego investigation, one tenant said mold in her bathroom sent her son to the emergency room with an asthma attack. She said the city code enforcement officer told her to "Google mold" for help dealing with it.

San Diego code enforcement officers are already addressing mold complaints under the new law, according to the city. It's also added four enforcement officers focused on substandard housing and increased response times.

California Sen. Holly Mitchell (Los Angeles–D) authored the bill to amend the Health and Human Safety Code that regulates housing conditions. The California Association of Code Enforcement Officers and Oakland-based Regional Asthma Management and Prevention co-sponsored it.

They point to a 2011 statement from the California Department of Public Health that says visible mold and mold odor in dwellings increases the risk of respiratory disease.

In 2001, the department began studying how much mold poses a risk. After four years of research, health officials told the legislature there is no "sound science" for establishing safety limits for mold in dwellings, but that there is consensus among medical professionals that its presence causes asthma, allergies and respiratory infections.

The lack of any formal guidelines on how much mold is too much is part of why regulation hasn't existed until now, and why tenants have a hard time arguing for damages in court.

The San Diego Apartment Association, which represents local landlords, opposed the bill. The group's Director of Public Affairs, Molly Kirkland, said the amendment to the housing law "goes overboard in defining any amount of any mold as a substandard housing condition" and doesn't "provide a workable standard for determining when a violation is cured."

"The law is still new so we won’t know the true unintended consequences until we are notified that property owners and managers have received violations and get information on their experiences in trying to cure them," Kirkland said. "In the meantime, we will continue to encourage our members to immediately address sources of moisture and provide additional education on the subject."

The health and safety code already considered "dampness of habitable rooms" a substandard housing condition. This year's amendment adds "visible mold growth, as determined by a health officer or a code enforcement officer, excluding the presence of mold that is minor and found on surfaces that can accumulate moisture as part of their properly functioning and intended use."

Karina Villanueva