Mold is a tough thing for landlords, tenants, regulatory services and courts to deal with.
For tenants, it can lead to serious health effects, especially for children, people who are immunocompromised and elders. For landlords, it is an expensive fix. And for the city, it’s been difficult to identify and hold landlords accountable.
Other issues renters face, like a hole in the wall or an oven that does not work, is readily visible. Unlike those, the existence of mold, is often disputed between a landlord and tenant.
“Mold’s a tricky one,” said Daniel Suitor a housing attorney with HOME Line, a tenants’ rights advocacy for Minnesota renters.
Suitor, who refers to himself as being on the tenants side “99% of the time with most issues” said he understands why mold often is disputed, and why landlords struggle sometimes to control or get to the root of the issue.
“This is one of the few areas where I really understand where the disputes come from,” he said. “Mold is a pervasive problem and it has extremely deleterious health effects for tenants. But at the same time, it’s tough to find sometimes and it’s pretty expensive to fix it.”
Oftentimes, he says he sees a landlord going into a unit to fix the mold, but are halted by tenants worrying about the electricity bill that will rack up from running industrial fans for a week in the unit, or tenants frustrated that they won’t be able to use certain areas of their home because of the intensive repair process.
The Minneapolis City Council passed a new ordinance that aims to reduce the presence of mold in units, and require regulatory services to do more investigating when it does appear.
“This ordinance is going to give reg. services some increased tools to be able to support our residents when they’re dealing with mold issues,” said Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5) at the meeting.
Falling in between the cracks
Under the previous housing code, there was no clear metric to track mold in units. Regulatory services use the tag “water-damaged surfaces” as a proxy for inspections response. And as a result, the only thing landlords were legally required to address were those water-damaged surfaces.
“We’re able to chop at the edges of it, by looking at moisture, looking at water or surfaces that have dampness or excessive moisture. That’s how we were historically able to address conditions that would lead to mold,” said Enrique Velázquez, the director of the Minneapolis property inspections division.
A couple of years ago, a proposal was brought forward to change that. When the pandemic happened, it just lost traction, Velázquez said.
“It’s been a concern for a number of different years,” he said. “It just took us some time to get back to a place where we could focus on mold, and that time is right now. We continued to hear from residents and constituents, and then also from other elected officials that mold continues to be a source of complaints around community and that we need to take different actions to be able to address them.”
Velázquez said the city often received complaints from people have reached out to their landlords but concerns of mold weren’t taken seriously. In those cases, a tenant’s only option is to take their landlord to court through a rent escrow case.
Hannah Knazan-Lippman previously lived in a South Minneapolis house. After around a year and a half, she said she noticed there was mold in the basement.
“I was taking stuff out of there and there was like mold growing on it, like visible mold that. It just was like really funky,” she said.
She said there was no dispute with the landlords about it. They had people come in and remediate. A couple months later, Knazan-Lippman found black mold in the shower. The landlords had people tear out the tiles and replace the wall behind them, she said.
“(It) got rid of that particular spot, but they didn’t do anything to address the spores that were everywhere,” she said.
Knazan-Lippman got diagnosed with Lyme disease – from being bitten by a tick, around the same time. She said her doctor told her that the constant mold exposure was making it hard for her body to heal.
“The spores were all around the house, and the mold, seemed like it was other places besides that,” she said. “Because I was immunocompromised, (the spores) were making me really, really sick.”
She decided to do a mold test in the house, which took different samples from the house and assessed what types of mold were present. Her landlords told her no matter the test, they were done remediating, she said.
“It felt like a slap in the face. Like, “Oh, you actually don’t care at all about us. You just care about your house.’”
The test results came back and showed the house was unsafe to live in, she said. Knazan-Lippman and her daughter decided to move out.
While this was going on, she said she called HOME Line, and they told her the chances of winning in court would be low.
“The lawyer said that the laws around mold are really vague and pro landlord basically, because otherwise many landlords would have to spend a lot of money to get their places in better shape,” she said.
Knazan-Lippman said the mold was a big financial hit for her family.
“We had to throw literally everything away except for our dishes. We could keep metal, ceramic, and glass, but anything else that was remotely porous had to be tossed. So all of our furniture, all of our books, all of our paintings. Literally everything had to go: camping gear, sleeping bags, blankets, my child’s like teddy bears and stuffed animals, that was heartbreaking,” she said.
She estimates that it added up to $15,000 or more — which wasn’t covered by the landlords or insurance.
“It was a lot of money lost,” she said.
Who does this affect?
As in Knazan-Lippman’s case, for tenants, the process of dealing with mold can be strenuous, Suitor said.
“Oftentimes a settlement will have the landlord agreeing to make repairs, but if they don’t do it well or just refuse to do it, well now the tenant’s basically starting over. They can try to go back to court, they can file affidavits and all this, but that’s more legally complicated. Honestly, a lot of times tenants just give up,” Suitor said.
HOME Line received an average of 4,200 calls regarding repairs in each of the past three years. In Minneapolis, around 20% of those involve mold in some way. And the callers are disproportionately people of color.
Only around 18% of Minneapolis residents are Black, while 31% of HOME Line’s Minneapolis mold callers are Black.
“That’s a pretty heavy disparity,” Suitor said. “The burden of mold does disproportionately fall on BIPOC people. Part of that is because BIPOC people tend to rent, so they have a higher rate of living in rental properties, whereas if you (own) a home, you’re not talking to us,” he said.
A Racial Equity Impact Analysis (REIA) by the city reviewed 2017-2023 violation data for water-damaged surfaces and 311 calls where the word mold, mildew or water-damaged surface was recorded and found that wards with the highest number of violations are also the areas with the highest environmental justice concerns in the city – and have the highest percentages of BIPOC renters.
The majority of the city’s mold violations, tracked as water damage violations by the city, are in Wards 5. The ward makes up 5% or 5,387 of Minneapolis’ rental units – but accounts for a quarter of the city’s total water damage violations from 2017-2023.
Changes the ordinance brings
The new ordinance has three primary points. It will require exterior and interior surfaces to have no visible mold or excessive dampness, require water damaged surfaces be cleaned and repaired, and that the root cause of the underlying mold or dampness be investigated and corrected.
Getting rid of the visible mold is not not enough, Knazan-Lippman said.
“(The landlords) did get rid of the visible mold. They had someone from the mold squad who came and took out the tiles up to where you could see the mold, but for it to actually be the amount that would be needed for my health, would need to be all of the tile, not just to the visible ones, because the spores spread,” she said.
Velázquez said the new ordinance will hold landlords accountable to that.
“With the new ordinance, we’re able to draw some corollaries and do some additional testing to help identify whether mold exists and then draw some parallels with what those conditions are and the impacts on somebody’s respiratory issues or general health,” Velázquez said.
It also will regulate directing rain water away from structures to prevent wetness and mold growth.
The most impactful part of the ordinance for Suitor is the verbiage: “the underlying cause of excess dampness or moisture, or moldy or earthy odor shall be investigated and corrected.”
“That’s really important because it’s requiring a second step. It’s not just that you have to rip out the drywall and insulation and replace it. It’s that you have to find where that dampness or moisture is coming from,” Suitor said. “I think the real key here is getting under the hood and that a regulatory services investigator will have the right to order a landlord to say, ‘No, you do have to fix the plumbing in this, or you do have to investigate and find if it’s coming from a floor above or a basement below, you do have to investigate and find that.”