Molds photographed using a microscope.
Are your indoor mold levels higher than those outside?
Landlords, renters often wind up sparring about spores
In moisture-rich Northwest, liability for mold is an issue
Mold in the Northwest is as common as rain in February. It's hard to avoid when it's wet and damp for at least five months out of the year. For people battling mold inside their homes, though, it is cold comfort to know mold is ubiquitous. Mold spores can destroy walls and floors, make a house smell musty and unpleasant and -- worst of all -- irritate eyes, skin and lungs. Homeowners might face expensive repairs, but the problem is more pronounced in rental units, where tenants and landlords play tug-of-war about who caused the moisture that attracted the mold. "There is lot of substandard housing out there and people who are not good landlords," said Rick Sherman, program supervisor for environmental health at the Marion County Health Department. "But I've also seen the opposite problem with renters who don't keep up the place. There's no black and white." For renters Ester and Roberto Jr. Garibay, the mold eventually meant moving. The couple sprayed the mold spores with ammonia. The maintenance man at their apartments used bleach. The $100 they spent on specific mildew removers didn't solve the problem. The mold kept returning. It was waist-high in the closet and crawling up behind the toilet, they said. Black mold was growing along the back of their dresser that was pushed against the wall. "We had to throw away clothes because they were moldy," Roberto said. The final straw, though, was when their 1-month-old son seemed to be affected by the mold. "We noticed ... his breathing could be affected -- he gets stuffy in the apartment," Ester said. "It could affect his respiratory system. He had green snot and boogers." The Garibays moved out in May and are staying with Ester's parents until they can find a new place. The manager at their apartments, on the other hand, said that the mold wasn't excessive and the Garibays would not let the maintenance man complete his mold treatments. Manager Pat Lindberg of W and R Properties said tenants need to let the bleach work dry, and then allow the maintenance managers to paint over it. Lindberg said the couple's continuous treatments kept the area wet and spread the mold around. "As for care of mold, it is a two-way street," Lindberg said. "We try to educate tenants about what to do with mold." To eliminate mold, people first must eliminate the moisture. A continually damp area will continue to grow mold, no matter how many times bleach is applied to it. Moisture can be caused by leaky pipes, improper storm drainage, extensive use of hot water indoors without adequate venting, and damp basements. Landlords are responsible for some of those problems, but laws don't specifically address mold. State law requires adequate ventilation, good waterproofing and weather protection. The city of Salem's housing codes require basic upkeep of buildings. Some mold problems can be prevented by basic maintenance. "If we see mold in a dwelling unit, it becomes, 'How did it get here?'" said Brady Rogers, acting administrator of the compliance services division for the city of Salem. "If we can find a flaw in building which caused the mold, we can make a repair happen and make sure the mold is abated. If a leaky roof or ventilation fan is not working in a bathroom, we can make the repair get made." One inspector examines each of about 14,500 apartment units in the city -- on a five-year rotation. It's during an inspection that problems that might lead to mold can be found. But calls to the city about mold in apartments don't get inspected immediately; renters have to deal with landlords first. That's where housing laws fall short, said Ian Slingerland, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, based in Portland. The nonprofit provides renters with information about their rights and potential actions they can take to address eviction notices or repair problems. It has a hotline for residents. Slingerland said calls about mold have increased in the past few years, perhaps because the problem is growing but probably because people simply are more aware of the hazards of mold. "The biggest problem we see is there are not good enforcement tools for tenants," he said. "And because there are 30-day no-cause evictions, renters can be retaliated against." Tenants can withhold rent, for example, until a moisture problem is dealt with -- but if the landlord decides to evict the tenant, the eviction is part of the tenant's permanent record. And fighting the landlord could be expensive in court, he said. "There need to be better tools," he said. "Mold needs to be addressed better as a violation of habitability."
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Date Posted: 2007-06-25  

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