Black mold by satemkemet licensed under Creative Commons.

If there’s mold in your rental home in DC, you may not get help without a fight. While landlords are supposed to get rid of mold when it’s spotted, some tenants have to take them to housing conditions court in order to get an inspection and treatment. Currently, city inspectors aren’t trained to spot mold and can’t fine landlords when they neglect to address it.

“Mold is a persistent cause of complaint by tenants in poor-quality housing,” said DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson in an email. His Indoor Mold Remediation Enforcement Amendment Act of 2019 aims to update the Air Quality Amendment Act of 2014, which requires landlords to deal with mold but doesn’t have adequate enforcement. Right now, tenants can file a lawsuit with the DC Superior Court or pay someone themselves to deal with the issue, but this system can leave low-income tenants on the hook for expensive treatment.

Two DC agencies are involved with mold issues: the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA, which legally could cite cases of mold in rental housing but doesn’t seem to even though it does so for a variety of similar issues, and the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), which oversees the certification of private mold inspectors and contractors. It’s not clear who communicates between the two, or who is supposed to.

“Unfortunately, the current enforcement mechanism requires involvement by the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, even though tenants typically call the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs because DCRA handles all other housing code violations,” Mendelson said. “The result is, from a tenant’s perspective, complicated enforcement and unnecessary delays.”

The new law would task the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) with spotting and treating mold, and would give it the power to cite landlords who don’t comply. It would also require DOEE to certify DCRA housing inspectors to conduct indoor mold assessment and remediation so they can handle mold complaints in-house. Currently DOEE only certifies private contractors; Mendelson’s change moves this outsourced role to DCRA.

Mold is a big problem in the region

Mold plagues everything from local public housing and other apartment buildings to student dormitories. Last year, 600 students at the University of Maryland were displaced because of a mold outbreak, American University students reported mold-related health problems, and Georgetown’s Facilities Department responded to 361 mold-related work requests between August and October of 2018 alone. Tenants elsewhere in the region, like Silver Spring, have also had to sue for mold treatment.

So why does the area have so many mold problems? According to Beth Harrison, Supervising Attorney in the Housing Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society, DC has lots of older buildings which tend to be susceptible to water damage, which then breeds mold.

“The housing stock is older, and so you see issues with water intrusion because you have leaks in the roof, you have windows that are not necessarily completely air tight and maybe need to be replaced,” Harrison said. “You have plumbing systems that are old and likely have leaks behind the walls. This is just a problem that you tend to get in older housing stock.”

In 2015, the Legal Aid Society found that half of the housing violation cases it registered during a six-month period cited mold or mildew concerns, according to Harrison, and that number is consistent with her experience. Kathy Zeisel, who works on housing cases at the Children’s Law Center, had a similar observation according to WAMU: “I would say that in well over half, maybe even 70%, of the cases that we get referred people are reporting mold in their home.”

Neither DOEE or DCRA responded to inquiries about whether the city had data compiled for mold violations specifically.

Mold can spark serious health problems

The most typical kind of mold that appears in buildings or housing complexes is black mold, or stachybotrys chartarum, according to Dori Germolec, a biologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“We refer to mold like it’s one thing - it’s not,” Germolec said. “It’s lots of different organisms, and mold is found everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. The real issue is when it becomes overgrown, which is what happens, for example, in damp environments. A small amount of mold is probably not going to be an issue, but some people are particularly sensitive to it.”

The toxic black mold Stachybotrys chartarum growing on a paper towel. Image by Kathie Hodge licensed under Creative Commons.

The most common symptoms that tenants in mold-infested housing develop are respiratory-based, Germolec says.

The primary health effects of exposure to mold tends to be respiratory,” Germolec said. “Many people, when there’s a lot of exposure to mold, will get rhinitis, which is runny nose. They can get things like bronchitis. Individuals that may be sensitized to mold can have asthma-like symptoms, so respiratory distress, difficulty breathing, wheezing.”

In DC, 1 in 6 residents suffer from asthma, according to the DC Asthma Coalition, and the highest rates are found in Wards 5, 7 and 8. Reporting from Morgan Baskin at City Paper showed that the District’s high asthma rates are due in part to poor housing conditions, and the problem “disproportionately affects poor, urban minority children.” More extreme reactions to mold include allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis.

“DC has higher than national average asthma rates for adults and children,” Harrison said. “The doctors and other healthcare professionals that work with those children with asthma would tell you that very often, housing conditions—particularly for low income children—are a trigger or [are] exacerbating their asthma. This relates to housing code enforcement generally, and the approach we think the DC government should take is that housing code violations, including mold, are a public health issue.”

Clarifying a complicated process

DC’s Air Quality Amendment Act of 2014 does not require DCRA to include cases of mold in its housing inspections. However, the wording makes it possible for the agency to cite mold problems if they wanted to, according to Harrison. We repeatedly reached out to DCRA about this matter, but did not get a response.

Since DCRA doesn’t seem to be citing cases of mold, tenants must notify landlords themselves in writing in order to start the treatment process. Landlords must respond in seven days, and have 30 days to fix the problem. To do so properly, they must hire a DOEE-licensed mold inspector and contractor. However, DOEE will only provide a federally-licensed professional if the mold contamination is greater than 10 square feet, and the new bill doesn’t change that.

Homeowners are not required to hire a DOEE-licensed mold professional if they have no tenants. If the mold contamination is smaller, landlords have to deal with it themselves.

“We need a system that’s set up so that the tenants I work with [at the Legal Aid Society] don’t have to come to me to file something in court, but they can call a government agency, the government agency comes out, inspects, finds a violation, tells the landlord you have to fix this and follow the law, and then has follow-up to make sure that actually happens, and has an enforcement process to deter landlords from having the problems be created in the first place,” Harrison said.

Right now, DOEE regulates mold assessors and remediators, but doesn’t train them. To obtain certification from DOEE as a licensed mold inspector, one must go through an approved training program and exam, and have proof of three years of professional field experience, says DOEE spokesperson Mike Matthews. Under the new bill, all DCRA housing inspectors would be required to obtain certification with DOEE within 180 days of the bill’s passing to be able to cite mold.

If a landlord does not adequately address the mold issue in 30 days, DCRA inspectors would be able to issue Class 4 infractions. A first offense results in a $100 fine, while a fourth offense costs $800. Landlords may submit a request for an extension if they made a good-faith effort to remediate the mold, or the treatment requires more than 30 days to complete.

If you’d like to weigh in on this issue, Mendelson and Councilmember Mary Cheh are holding a hearing on the mold bill on Monday, December 9.