Without statewide standards, mold disputes confound tenants, landlords

Callie Johnson lived with her family in an apartment infested by mold. | Heidi Li/Missouri Business Alert
The story of Callie Johnson’s family illustrates the challenges inherent in mediating mold disputes between tenants and landlords in Missouri. | Heidi Li/Missouri Business Alert

Clyde Benson and his wife, Callie Johnson, didn’t expect to be evicted.

The couple found mold in their apartment last summer, and their landlord didn’t remove the mold, Johnson said. When the couple refused to pay rent, their landlord sued them and forced them to move out.

Like Johnson and Benson, more tenants in Missouri are fighting landlords over bad mold conditions in rental houses or apartments in recent years, according to both Mid-Missouri Legal Services and Legal Services of Southern Missouri. 

In 2014, the city of Columbia received 39 complaints stemming from landlords’ failure to solve mold issues in houses or apartments. That number more than doubled from 2013, according to a report from Neighborhood Services of the City of Columbia.

“Mold is an issue that comes up fairly recently, as people are becoming aware of it,” said Joe Hills, at attorney at Legal Services of Southern Missouri, which is located in Springfield.

Although more than 30 states have moved forward in regulating indoor mold conditions, there is no statute regarding mold in either Missouri law or federal law. As a result, tenants in Missouri sometimes find it hard to have landlords fix mold issues in their homes.

“Implied Warranty”

When Benson, Johnson and their two sons moved into their apartment in north Columbia in April 2014, everything seemed fine. But just two weeks after they moved in, it rained, and everything started to fall apart, Johnson said.

“The rain went through the patio door and entered into the kitchen. Black spots started to appear in the ceiling and on the wall through the paint,” Johnson said. “There was mold in the ceiling tiles in the bathroom, and there was black mold spores along the door frames.”

Mold is a recent issue, as more people become aware of it. Photo credit: Nick’s Inspection

Every time their neighbor upstairs turned the air conditioning on, water ran down to the floor, causing water to appear on the ceiling of Benson and Johnson’s apartment.

The couple blamed their landlord for not fixing the mold issues. Their landlord, Darren Patterson, disputes that account. He says Benson and Johnson didn’t take necessary measures to keep their living environment dry.

The couple’s 9-year-old son already had asthma, but it began to get worse as a result of exposure to mold, Johnson said. She had to bring him to see the doctor every other month.

Their younger son, who is 2, didn’t have asthma before moving into the apartment, Johnson said. But in the apartment, he began coughing and started to show symptoms of asthma. He now needs a nebulizer, a device commonly used for treatment of asthma, like his older brother, Johnson said.

Under Missouri Law, standard rental leases contain an “implied warranty of habitability,” which is a promise landlords make to keep his or her property habitable to tenants. However, whether and in what quantities mold is harmful to people’s safety is not clarified in the warranty, Hills said.

Asthma trigger

When Angela Boyer and her 5-year old child lived in a rental house in Columbia last fall, there was mold in their basement and garage. As the mold spread, her child’s asthma worsened, according to her complaint with Columbia’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

The same happened to Johnson and Benson’s 9-year-old son.

“It made my elder son’s asthma worse; he has to have a nebulizer,” Johnson said. “He has to have a dehumidifier and a fan to keep the air around him clean. He has nose bleed; he has dry throats.”

Mold allergies can trigger asthma. If people are sensitive to mold, inhaling mold spores can cause asthma attacks.

“If you have a mold allergy, it can cause problems,” said Dr. Ulus Atasoy, a physician at MU Children’s Hospital. “However, if you have mold allergies combined with asthma, this can worsen clinical symptoms depending on what kind of molds (you are exposed to).”

Asthma can be a lifelong problem, and some people who develop asthma during childhood may not grow out of it, Atasoy said.

Deadlock between tenants and landlords

However, even if tenants could prove the mold in their house or apartment is indeed harmful to their health, few tenants could actually win cases against their landlords, Hills said.

With the implied warranty of habitability, if a problem like mold occurs at no fault of the tenant and causes the tenant to be sick, then it’s typically the landlord’s responsibility to fix it, according to Michael Carney, Benson’s lawyer at Mid-Missouri Legal Services.

In Benson and Johnson’s case, a water leak from a neighboring apartment caused mold in the couple’s apartment, according to a court document from the case. Photo credit: Heidi Li

In Benson and Johnson’s case, a water leak from a neighboring apartment caused mold in the couple’s apartment, according to a court document from the case. When the couple notified their landlord, Patterson, of the problem, he brought a blower into the apartment to dry the carpet and the floor underneath it. But Johnson said mold on the walls remained.

Patterson said the couple is responsible for the mold. He maintains it was a result of their disconnecting dehumidifiers and air movers that were put into the apartment to stop mold from growing.

The couple stopped paying rent in August 2014, in protest of the landlord’s failure to remove the mold in the apartment. Patterson then sued Benson and Johnson and started the eviction process.

“When someone is being evicted for owing rent, it moves very, very quickly,” Hills said.

Tenants often only have four days between receiving court eviction papers and having to move out, Hills said, which is not enough time for the tenants to conduct an air test on mold.

Tenants’ concerns

Tenants are faced with other possible burdens when dealing with mold in their residences, including the high cost of mold testing, which is often needed to prove the severity of a mold problem.

Sometimes mold is so bad that cleaners have to cut out sections of walls. Photo credit: Servicemaster of Columbia

Mold testing usually costs from $300 to $1,500, according to Nick Fortner, the president of Nick’s Inspection Services in Grain Valley. If a client also needs a written protocol for a remediation, which would be used by another company in removing the mold, it adds to the cost.

To lessen the expense, tenants in some Missouri cities and counties can turn to city health inspectors to do the testing. In St. Louis County, a violation of health codes would be issued to a landlord after a failed inspection, if he or she refuses to fix the mold, said David Wrone, spokesman at the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic and Public Works.

Since remediation of mold is also expensive, some landlords cut corners in that process. Landlords will cover up mold, or will dry the floor rather than actually removing mold, according to a sampling of tenant complaints filed with Columbia’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

Remediation costs could be as low as $500 or less, or as high as $160,000 in some cases, said Adam Kinser, the president of Servicemaster of Columbia. Sometimes mold is so bad that cleaners have to cut out sections of walls.

In some cases, when tenants try to negotiate with landlords or stop paying rent, landlords threaten to give bad references for them, which could affect their rental prospects in the future, Hills said.

“The tenants would put up with an awful lot of bad conditions before they complain, at least the people I serve.” Hills said.

Legal predicament

In 2012, Rep. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsored legislation in the Missouri House that would have required landlords to notify tenants about the existence of mold in rental properties before tenants moved in. The bill was not signed into law.

Despite the lack of regulations at the state level, some cities and counties do have health codes or policies that address mold issues.

Last December, the city of Manchester established a policy on mold in residential properties. It asks tenants to clean their environment first, said Kathy Arnett, the director of Planning and Zoning of the City of Manchester. But if problems like mold are caused by neighbors or maintenance issues like leaky roofs, it’s the landlords’ responsibility to fix them, Arnett said.

The major challenge with mold legislation is establishing standards for regulation, Hills said, because of the uncertain relationship between mold and the health of tenants.

Some black mold is harmful, while some isn’t. Photo credit: Nick’s Inspection

Whether mold exposure causes health problems depends on a variety of factors, including people’s susceptibility to mold issues, what kinds of mold are present and whether the environment is moist, said Dr. James Seltzer, who specializes in pediatric asthma and air pollution at the University of California, Irvine.

Despite that ambiguity, some states have made efforts to address mold problems. Last year, Georgia and Louisiana passed legislation to establish special committees to study mold and possible policies to address the issue.

Without any statewide regulations in Missouri, Hills said some landlords will re-rent properties that have mold without treating the mold.

Asked if there’s any way to solve that problem, Hills paused. “I would love to be able to have that sort of funding,” he said.

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