The name Amanda Bonnen has become synonymous with the devastating effects the presence of mold, or its suspected presence, can have for landlords. The former tenant of the Horizon Realty Group posted a “tweet” to her Twitter account that said; “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon Realty thinks it’s okay.”
The management company issued a statement saying it found the May 12th “tweet” while defending a class action lawsuit Bonnen filed against it claiming alleged violations of the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance.
Horizon went on to add that no mold was ever found in Bonnen’s apartment. However, in March water had leaked into her unit and some others in the building after a faulty roof repair job. Horizon said that all affected tenants were contacted so that any water damage that resulted from the repair could be resolved. Of all the tenants involved in the matter, only Bonnen remained dissatisfied, and she moved out when her lease expired on June 30.
The reason mold causes such concern is because of the health risks associated with it, such as allergic reactions, asthma attacks, sinus infections, memory loss and lung problems in the very young and the elderly. The best way to protect yourself from a tenant like Amanda Bonnen is to get as much information as possible as to what mold is and how it can be removed.
According to Bill Begal, President of Begal Enterprises Inc, a company that does disaster mitigation and restoration, mold is a natural, growing object that can never be completely removed. That’s because once an area is cleaned and you open it up to the rest of the environment, mold will be brought in from the environment and start living there again.
He cautioned landlords to remember that not all mold is bad, and not all black mold is toxic. The strain of black mold that carries toxicity is known as stachybotrys chartarum. It is this type of mold that produces byproducts called mycotoxins, which cause health problems.
Bill says there are six conditions that are necessary for mold to grow:
• Lack of light
• Lack of air
• The right temperature
• The proper humidity
• A mold spore (the reproductive system of the mold)
• A host (place for the mold to grow)
Mold can grow anywhere these six conditions exist, especially in areas where there is water intrusion like a basement or a roof.
Once a landlord finds mold present on their property, the legal time frame allowed to remove it varies from state-to-state. However, Bill says that despite the legal requirements, landlords should resolve any leaking water problem as soon as possible because when building materials get wet, mold begins to develop within 48 to 72 hours.
Mold remediation, as the cleaning process is called, should be done by professionals who know how to properly contain and remove moldy building materials. The containment is equally as important as the removal because you don’t want to cross contaminate other parts of the home. Professionals use various kinds of equipment like air scrubbers and HEPA filters to avoid spreading the mold. The cost for this type of work can range from a few hundred to millions of dollars depending upon the size of the space to be cleaned and the access to the property, among other factors.
Some jurisdictions allow landlords to clean up to 10 square feet of mold –infected space without calling in a professional. The guidelines for remediation can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) web site at http://www.epa.gov/mold/mold_remediation.html. As Bill explained, these are the only written guidelines on the subject.
When it comes to the question of whether or not the landlord must disclose the presence of mold to tenants, with very few exceptions, most states have not clearly defined what the landlord’s responsibilities are. Bill notes that in the absence of a clear legal directive, landlords should use common sense. Instead of worrying about whether or not you can get away with renting an apartment with mold present, limit your liability by being proactive and resolving the problem.
One important caveat should be noted here. The liability issue changes dramatically depending on the reason for the mold’s existence. If the mold results from the landlord’s failure to maintain the property in a habitable condition, then the landlord is legally liable. However, if the cause of the mold growth is due to tenant actions like creating high humidity, or failing to clean the premises, then the landlord is not liable.
In somre jurisdictions, the presence of mold can be grounds for breaking a lease. And as the Bonnen case shows, it can also be grounds for a lawsuit. Bill recommends that you check with a real eatate attorney in your area to determine your exposure in this regard.
Bill added that a savvy landlord will limit exposure to legal action by being proactive and examining your property for things like the presence of mold at least twice a year. This will not only give you the opportunity to fix the problem, but to document that it was resolved. With the proper recordkeeping, you can head off a lawsuit before it even gets started.