A tense landlord-tenant dispute in Long Beach, California has made its way into local headlines. It all started last year, when one of the tenants living at 3810 Ocean Blvd. was continuously sick. After running a series of tests, doctors confirmed that mold spores were the most likely cause of tenant’s discomfort.
To be sure, the tenant had the unit tested—and sure enough, an inspector confirmed that there was mold in the ceilings, cabinets and walls of the apartment. The tenant notified the property owner and management company but, claims they failed to take any corrective action.
When other tenants caught word of what was going on, they, too, decided to have their units tested. A second mold report was issued in March 2016, also confirming the presence of mold.
As of this writing, four tenants have filed a lawsuit against J-Mar Investments, Walter Watson and Entourage Property Management for failing to provide a habitable dwelling and failing to pay relocation expenses to the tenants so they could live elsewhere while the units were remediated. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages related to medical bills, loss of earnings, emotional distress, pain, suffering and humiliation.
By and large, this is a pretty straightforward landlord-tenant dispute. So why did it end up in the headlines?
As it turns out, the owner and property management company are also responsible for a building located at 1 54th Place, a 9-unit apartment building (also in Long Beach). A similar situation has unfolded there.
One of the tenants in this building had complained to the landlord about the presence of mold to no avail. It wasn’t until she got sick and had to be hospitalized that the landlord agreed to test the apartment for mold. In May 2016, the mold test came back positive.
Perhaps the landlord had learned from his mistakes at the other building, because this time around he offered to pay for the tenant and her family to stay in a hotel so the mold could be removed. “I’ve been in [the unit],” confirmed Josh Butler of Housing Long Beach, a local tenants’ advocacy organization. “They took the baseboards down and did an extensive amount of work to clean up the unit.”
All was well and good until the building’s other tenants asked for their units to be tested for mold, as well. When the mold test came back “inconclusive,” the property management company responded by issuing all of those tenants a 3-day notice to vacate. The only tenant that wasn’t given notice to vacate was the third floor tenant, who hadn’t asked for the mold test to be conducted.
Tenants claim this is retaliation for asking for the mold test. The property manager says the mold report suggested he perform a “destructive investigation”—a protocol that involves taking the walls out down to the studs—to see if there was moisture buildup that could cause mold to grow. That was the only way to be sure the units were safe. “Once we found out that [the tenants’] health might be in jeopardy, we had no choice. We had to do something,” says Entourage principal Larry Guesno, Jr.
Yet the 3-day notice to vacate only referred to a vague “health problem” that may or may not actually exist. The tenants asked for a copy of the mold report but the property management company refused to oblige. “He gave them a 3-day notice with no legal reason,” says Butler. “There is a clause in the lease that allows that, but only when there is substantial damage to the unit—not that damage may happen. He’s been asked to produce the reports; there have been numerous requests.” Butler suspects that the landlord just doesn’t want to go through the headache of conducting the inspection or renovating the units—something that would be costly, particularly when relocation costs are factored in. Or, alternatively, the landlord might be using this as an excuse to kick the tenants out so he can renovate all of the units at once and rent them out at a higher rate. The building is located in a particularly affluent area of Long Beach, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the landlord could be getting higher rents than what the previous tenants were paying.
Housing Long Beach orchestrated a protest at the apartment building on June 1, which brought even more attention to the landlord-tenant dispute. Guesno has since offered to work with the tenants, but has held his ground on the need to vacate the premises. Unless a resolution is found, there’s a good chance tenants from this building will sue, much like the tenants on Ocean Blvd. are doing now.
What Property Managers Need to Know About Mold
First and foremost, be aware that a landlord’s duties regarding mold remediation are rarely outlined in local building codes, ordinances, statutes or other regulations. What’s more, no federal law on the topic exists, and only a handful of states have adopted criteria for permissible mold standards. California, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas are among the few that have. But once again, these laws do not always explain who is responsible for mold remediation, even if the level of mold is deemed in violation with local building or health codes.
Typically, landlords are responsible for mold remediation if the mold was caused by a violation of the building codes. Some examples include: poor ventilation in the bathrooms; inadequate cleaning and drying of carpets after apartment flooding; or improper clean-up after a fire.
Landlords are also responsible if the mold in the apartment is caused by an “inhabitable premises”—i.e. the landlord has failed to make reasonable repairs. For instance, failure to fix a leaky roof, sink or windows may cause mold to grow. At that point, the landlord is responsible for mold removal if he did not fix the leaks (assuming, of course, that the tenant has notified the landlord of said leaks).
Conversely, the tenant is responsible for maintaining sanitary premises. If the tenant’s own behavior is a contributing factor to the mold growth, then the tenant can be held responsible for its removal. This might occur, for example, if the tenant allows the tub to overflow and doesn’t air out the bathroom properly, or if the tenant routinely takes steamy showers and doesn’t turn on the vent.
Perhaps the most important thing for landlords and property managers to keep in mind is – regardless of who’s technically at fault—mold removal needs to be dealt with as soon as it’s discovered. The longer you wait, the more it can spread and the harder (and costlier!) it will be to remove down the line.Read more on Maintenance & Improvements