By Gary Frederick • Conservation Chair, Raritan Valley Group
Imagine discovering one day a thin, black, fuzzy crack running beneath your windowsill. Upon closer inspection, parts of the drywall are wet and crumbling. The carpet is squishy. Then you notice black specks on the baseboard and more black fuzz behind the furniture. Mold has invaded your apartment.
According to a December 2021 article in the Asbury Park Press, that’s what happened to Asbury Park Gardens residents Charlotte and Derrick Jackson. It would eventually cause them to flee with their four children to a relative’s home in South Carolina after a doctor suspected their rashes, fatigue, and various respiratory problems were probably caused by the mold. Charlotte notified the property manager of their apartment complex, who replaced the carpet and moldy drywall but not much else. The mold predictably came back. Incredibly, after Charlotte called the Monmouth County Health Department and the Asbury Park Department of Code Enforcement, she was told they lacked the authority to do any testing or remediation.
Lack of Protection
The lack of state and local regulations on mold is a national problem that starts with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency, which clearly states on its website that its mission is to “protect human health and the environment,” has not set any enforcement regulations for mold. Its site (epa.gov/mold) mostly addresses how to clean up mold in your own home. Until the EPA actually sets standards, states will be reluctant to set their own standards and enforcement.
For residents in New Jersey, including about 1 million renters, protections exist for lead, asbestos, and radon, but there are no protections for mold. Landlords are not required to remediate mold, and the state has no cleanup standards. The consequences for public health are severe. According to Cleveland Clinic, about 1 in 5 people have environmental allergies, of which mold is one. The symptoms of a mold allergy are runny nose or nasal congestion, itchy eyes and/or throat, wheezing, coughing and/or sneezing, headaches, skin rash, asthma attacks, and lung infections, which can be life-threatening.
Among lower-income renters in general, mold is an insidious problem. According to the Asbury Park Press article, the problem is particularly severe for those living in federally subsidized housing, which makes it a crisis for the Department of Housing and Development (HUD). A 2019 US Census Bureau survey found that tenants in HUD-subsidized housing are almost twice as likely to live in mold-infested dwellings. Higher-income families have the means to live in private homes or better-maintained apartments, and they can often remediate mold problems on their own. Renters in substandard, subsidized housing fall through the cracks of sparse landlord maintenance and minimal attention by state and local officials to mold problems.
Legislation Keeps Getting Introduced
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the mold problem exploded along the Jersey Shore, with some local contractors calling it the worst they had ever seen. State Sen. Robert Singer (NJ-30) has repeatedly introduced legislation (S81) that would protect renters from mold infestation. The proposed Mold Safe Housing Act calls for mold inspections whenever a new tenant moves into an apartment. It also declares the premises must be free of “visible or detectable indications of the substantial presence of mold.” If the mold problem requires tenants to move out during remediation, the landlord would be forced to reimburse the cost.
That legislation has been reintroduced every year since 2013 with little movement. But recently state Sen. Linda Greenstein (NJ-14) has signed on as a cosponsor. And an identical bill has been introduced in the Assembly (A4039). The NJ Chapter of the Sierra Club stands ready to help move these bills forward in the legislature, along with a discussion on amendments to strengthen them even further.
What You Can Do
In the meantime, what can you do if you find mold? The NJ Department of Environmental Protection, in a brochure titled “Mold: Guidelines for New Jersey Residents,” suggests:
- Hire an experienced mold assessor to evaluate the severity of the problem. The assessor should not be the one doing the remediation, which would be a conflict of interest.
- Get a written report from the assessor, including any sampling results, areas inspected, cause of mold growth, and remediation recommendations.
- Obtain several estimates from remediation contractors and be sure they are bidding on the identical work listed in the assessor’s report.
- Find out how the contractor will be doing the work and if it complies with local building codes.
- Ask if the contractor has liability insurance that covers mold or microbial work.
- Avoid any contractor who claims the work will make your home mold-free. That’s an impossible claim to make.
As for dealing with a landlord who refuses to make the necessary repairs, there are two approaches renters can take: Withhold rent if the apartment is uninhabitable because of mold, or 2) fix the mold on your own and withhold rent to cover the cost. But be aware the landlord can initiate eviction proceedings in both cases and the dispute will probably land in court. Unfortunately, for low-income renters, the lack of state protections and regulations leaves them particularly vulnerable to the ravages of mold.