Mold in the Unit: It’s Complicated!

Landlords and tenants tend to get anxious when hearing the term ‘mold.’ But it’s important to remember that while mold is a moisture problem, the presence of moisture isn’t necessarily a mold problem. That is, humidity creates conditions for mold to grow but toxic mold should not prevail in our relatively dry climate unless it is left unaddressed. Mold is “complicated,” as they say, and so is getting help if you suspect mold is present in your apartment.

California law actually includes a provision specifically addressing mold. The Health and Safety Code Division 13 (housing) Chapter 2 (rules) Part 1.5 (regulation of housing) section 17920.3 reads:

Any building or portion thereof including any dwelling unit, guestroom or suite of rooms, or the premises on which the same is located, in which there exists […] visible mold growth, as determined by a health officer or a code enforcement officer, as defined in Section 829.5 of the Penal Code, excluding the presence of mold that is minor and found on surfaces that can accumulate moisture as part of their properly functioning and intended use […] shall be deemed and hereby is declared to be a substandard building.

Here ‘substandard’ means that the unit does not honor what the law calls the ‘implied warranty of habitability’: that the unit includes heat, hot water, plumbing, and lighting in good repair, and that it is free from “debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin.” (Civil Code section 1941.1).

Know also that a tenant has responsibility to keep the apartment clean and free of conditions where mold can develop. The following section of the state Civil Code (section 1941.2) details the tenant’s obligations, among other things to keep “clean and sanitary” premises, to dispose of waste properly, and to keep electrical, gas and plumbing fixtures “as clean and sanitary as their condition permits.”

In 2015 the state legislature added a provision addressing mold. But since the state’s health code section 17920.3 substantially addresses it, the new provision is rather spare, and in fact it specifies where the landlord bears no responsibility:

1941.7 (a) An obligation shall not arise under Section 1941 or 1942 to repair a dilapidation relating to the presence of mold pursuant to paragraph (13) of subdivision (a) of Section 17920.3 of the Health and Safety Code until the lessor has notice of the dilapidation or if the tenant is in violation of Section 1941.2 [keeping a clean home].

Mold example The takeaway: if you mold growing (like the example at right) do report it immediately. Your landlord will likely be liable and you will find the authorities responsive to your concern. Under section 17920.3 the landlord will have to ‘remediate’ the problem (and do so with proper permits and licensed contractors).

However the issue becomes more complicated when mold is suspected but not visible. If mold is not visually evident, it may be difficult to get support from our local code enforcement division. You may well receive a response like this one:

If there is no visible mold the tenant will have to hire a certified mold inspector and pay for the inspection and a report. If the report [indicates the presence of toxic mold] we will open a case. The tenant can also request the landlord pay for the cost of the inspection. If the landlord refuses to pay, the tenant can file a Small Claims case against the landlord.

Without an obvious sign of mold, it may be a challenge to get your landlord to take your concern seriously. Then it falls to the tenant to contract a mold test ($400+) and perhaps bring a civil action to recover that out-of-pocket cost. Costs can also include expenses for temporary relocation (Beverly Hills does not require the landlord pay temporary relocation assistance) as well as discarded furniture or clothing. The mold issue is sufficiently complicated to warrant an entire book on the topic.

What To Do If You Suspect Mold

First, read up about mold in the state Department of Health’s handy FAQ. There are many different varieties and not all are toxic. Next, see if your potential mold matches some online images. Then if you still suspect mold give the city’s code enforcement division a call. They probably won’t help you, but will take a preliminary report.

The next step is to call the Los Angeles County Environmental Health Hotline at (888) 700-9995 and ask for an inspection. Alternately go online to file a complaint. (If you’re not hearing back then try the district office serving Beverly Hills at (213) 351-7896. Tell them Renters Alliance sent you!)

A Moisture Problem Is Not Necessarily a Mold Problem

Mold is also complicated because there may be signs of water damage but no clear indication of mold. That should be a wake-up call for the landlord: assess and address the damage or it may lead to the growth of toxic mold. Moreover, the state code (included above) puts the onus on the tenant to alert the landlord.

You can perform a preliminary test before you call the landlord. To test for water damage such as may suggest the opportunity for mold grown, simply press firmly on the wall (or ceiling): does the drywall give under pressure? It should be firm and flat and show no bubbling paint. Then rap it with your knuckle: does the drywall sound hollow (good) or does it sound solid? Drywall that sounds dead to a knock could be water-logged, which over time could allow mold to grow.

Other areas of concern include around windows where weatherproofing is no longer effective (that would violate the implied warranty of habitability too) and under a sink or behind a tub/shower faucet.

Sometimes It Is a Simple Repair

If you are concerned that non-visible mold is present, or you are suffering from symptoms you associate with mold exposure, the best thing is to get it analyzed. But sometimes a simple repair is all that is necessary. If you have caught water damage early, or otherwise don’t suspect that mold is a problem, then your first contact should be the landlord. Put your concern in writing (always!) and get his response in writing. How the landlord reacts to your complaint indicates how seriously he takes mold as an environmental hazard.

How the landlord moves to repair (or not) also indicates his level of concern for his tenant. He should suggest an immediate inspection by his building guy. A landlord who declines to inspect after you report a problem such as water damage, or who inspects and then rushes to repair it without conducting any test, may be looking to evade responsibility.

Remember: under the law the tenant bears some responsibilities. That’s a practical matter too: mold can grow in hospitable, humid conditions like a bathroom if it is without adequate ventilation and not cleaned regularly. Make an effort to keep it reasonably clean and dry; ventilate the bathroom after a shower; and clean walls with a household disinfectant on a regular basis. These simple steps will not only head-off a mold problem, it will also relieve you of responsibility should mold become a problem.

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