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After record year for rain, advocates and lawmakers point to mold problems for low-income renters in Baltimore

After record year for rain, advocates and lawmakers point to mold problems for low-income renters in Baltimore
Tyisha Fulton stands among bags filled with possessions, kissing her six-month-old daughter Ayla Wilson. Fulton was granted an emergency voucher to move after the home failed a safety inspection. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

After Baltimore’s wettest year on record, housing advocates are seeking more protections for low-income tenants battling mold in their rental homes — and a city councilman is calling for a hearing on the problem.

Last year’s rainfall exacerbated damp conditions, breeding a perfect atmosphere for mold, according to advocates, officials and renters. Such growth had long been a bane to poorer tenants renting older homes in neighborhoods where health data shows residents suffer disproportionately from asthma.

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The rainy year caused significant trouble across the region: Mosquitoes multiplied to three times the normal number in Maryland, tomatoes cracked and sunflowers rotted and some farmers lost entire crops, and hundreds of students living on campus at the University of Maryland, College Park, were displaced by mold infestations.

In Baltimore, City Councilman Bill Henry plans on Monday to call for an informational hearing. Advocates want air-quality testing and requirements to treat the fungus like lead paint when it threatens a person’s health.

Mold is among the top three problems Baltimore tenants report, along with pests and trouble with utility connections, according to Zafar Shah, an attorney at the Public Justice Center. The nonprofit, representing tenants in landlord disputes, wants Baltimore’s housing code to give tenants the right to air-quality testing, transparency in the repair process and alternative housing when mold is being removed.

“The renters in this city know there is a really terrible problem, and not just because of the rain, but the continued deterioration of these properties,” Shah said, adding that two of his clients photographed mushrooms growing inside their homes.

“Last year, it became clear this wasn’t isolated to a few bad properties that might have structural defects. Properties with minor roof or sealant issues with windows by October had major problems with mold.”

Shah said “rent escrow court” filings — where tenants ask judges to set aside rent payments until landlords fix serious hazards — rose last year along with precipitation. The total for 2018 was 1,341, at least a 10-year high, and an increase of one-third over 2017.

Last year, requests for escrow actions, in which rent is held in an escrow account until a landlord fixes a serious issue, reached an at least 10-year high in Baltimore.
Last year, requests for escrow actions, in which rent is held in an escrow account until a landlord fixes a serious issue, reached an at least 10-year high in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun / Data: mdcourts.gov)

Mold can cause rashes, trigger asthma attacks and, in rare and extreme cases, result in death if a person’s airways swell and become restricted, said Ruth Ann Norton, president of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a national nonprofit which advocates for healthy, safe and energy efficient homes from its offices in Baltimore and a handful of other cities. And it is not always possible to spot on routine inspection, she said. The fungus can grow behind drywall when there are leaks and moisture can cause it to line the inside of a chimney or grow inside a ventilation system, spreading spores throughout the house.

Renters in Baltimore point to their struggles with water — and attendant mold concerns — this year. Take, for example, two adjacent, century-old East Baltimore rowhomes in the 1600 block of Aisquith Street.

Tyisha Fulton lived there with her four children, including her infant daughter, who has had trouble breathing and needs treatment for asthma symptoms. Inspection records for Fulton’s house, provided by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, show multiple violations, including roof leaks, a mice infestation and fungal growth behind sheet rock.

Ultimately, Fulton said, she was granted an emergency Section 8 voucher from the housing authority to move the third time she had a carbon monoxide leak.

“I did not know this house had so many problems,” said Fulton, 30, who moved last month.

Next door, Shateara Diggs and her sons, 6 and 8, have suffered cold symptoms since moving in last summer. A doctor’s letter links her illness to mold in the house; he prescribed steroids and an inhaler. Diggs said her landlord’s crews chipped mold from pipes and cleaned and repainted walls — but it persisted. Inspection records list water damage, leaks, inadequate air circulation and a “strong mildew smell.” Yet no mold.

Norton said requiring air quality testing could have helped pinpoint if mold was growing.

“I am reaching out to everyone possible, and I am not being heard, or they just don’t care,” Diggs, 26, said. “I had to get myself together and say, ‘Me and my kids got to get out this house.’ ”

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Last month, housing officials issued her a voucher to move, citing recurring water in the basement.

Property records show both houses are owned by Wadham Properties Holdings in Towson. Multiple voicemails, emails and text messages from The Baltimore Sun seeking comment for this article were not returned.

The housing authority is conducting quality control inspections for the properties. The Section 8 program “relies on responsible property owners to help us provide quality homes to low-income families,” the agency said in a statement. “Our role is to ensure that these landlords are in compliance with health and safety standards.”

Agency officials said inspectors have found a “noticeable increase” of mold over the last year, generally, because of the increase in rain.

Given that health consequences can be severe, Norton said, her group wants state and local lawmakers to treat mold more like toxic lead paint. She said the fungus, along with moisture intrusion and carbon monoxide, should be added to health and safety threats under state law that require landlords to act, just as they’re compelled to act to protect renters from lead paint.

The state requires that tenants in properties that could contain lead paint be given a bill of rights that includes a “notice of defect” form. The tenants can use the form to report if there is chipping, flaking or peeling paint — or if there are problems in the house that would cause the paint to do that. Norton said she wants mold to be added to the list of defects a landlord is required to remediate.

“With the change in climate and so much rain and so many older houses, the risk becomes higher,” Norton said.

Adam Skolnik, who runs the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords, pushed back on the discussion about new regulations. He said renters already have an assortment of remedies from inspections to escrow court. Skolnik said passing new rules for landlords in response to an unusually wet year is unnecessary and could be costly to renters. They could face increased expenses or fees that would be passed on to them from the property owners, he said.

“What isn’t working from a legal remedy perspective?” Skolnik said. “Judges hear mold and they get very nervous for the people living there and they send inspectors out.”

Though the City Council passed new rules this year to require more safety inspections for renters, the council did not address mold problems directly.

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The sweeping overhaul of the 50-year-old licensing rules for rental properties in Baltimore did not update the housing code to allow direct citation for mold, and the fungus is not on the checklist for inspections under the new rental license program. Under those regulations, all rental buildings must pass a safety inspection to be granted a two-year license. Eventually, city officials will split landlords into two categories: ones that can receive three-year licenses and others deemed negligent who will face more frequent inspections.

The legislation followed a yearlong investigation by The Baltimore Sun that documented lax enforcement of rental housing codes. A review of the city’s rent escrow court found that judges ruled in favor of landlords far more often than tenants, even with testimony from inspectors.

Tammy Hawley, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said inspectors have other tools for citing problems that can lead to mold, including interior leaks, standing water and sanitary conditions. She did not take a position on whether the city code should be changed to directly address mold.

Henry, the councilman, said he will call for an informational hearing into whether tenants need more protections against mold. But he said figuring how the city would regulate mold — or if it should — is complex. He expects to introduce a resolution at Monday’s council meeting.

“Sometimes there is visible mold, but some visible mold isn’t dangerous — some is,” Henry, of North Baltimore, said. “This is an issue the council should be better educated on.”

Baltimore Sun audience editor Steve Earley contributed to this article.

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