People have a lot to worry about when they rent an apartment. There are leases to read, costs to negotiate, neighbors to meet, and, of course, hours upon hours of packing, hauling, and unpacking. But amid all of the other worries, renters need to keep one more thing in mind: mold.
It may not seem like a big concern, but mold can cause a world of trouble for renters. Knowing how to prevent mold in the first place and who is legally responsible for mold clean-up is essential to avoiding a potentially costly situation. This article will discuss why mold is harmful to you and what you can do to gain the upper hand in the battle to make your rental property mold-free.
What Is Mold? What Are Mold Illnesses?
Before we delve into the specific tenant rights in the state of Massachusetts, we should discuss what mold is and why it’s so dangerous to have in your home. Mold is a kind of fungus that is common throughout the world, growing naturally in a wide variety of climates and temperatures. In our daily lives we come into contact with mold quite frequently—in cheeses, on sidewalks, and on shower curtains. Mold’s main purpose in nature is to facilitate the decomposition process.
Mold travels from host site to host site by releasing into the air tiny particles of itself, called spores, which land in places where it can find moisture and organic material—the only two things it needs to live. The vast majority of mold varieties are perfectly harmless when we aren’t exposed to unusually high concentrations of them. However, mold can become a health problem when it is allowed to grow unabated indoors or when it’s one of the dozen or so varieties of “toxic mold.”
“Black mold,” known as Stachybotrys chartarum, is one of the household mold varieties that scientists consider to be toxigenic. This means that its spores contain a mycotoxin, which can be inhaled by people and animals. The mycotoxin causes a bevy of problems when it interferes with the cellular functions of lung tissue. On the extreme end of the spectrum, Stachybotrys mold spores have been linked to pulmonary hemorrhage, asthma attacks, and sudden infant death syndrome. Other “toxic mold” varieties include Aspergillus, Penicillum, and Chysosporium, all of which are harmful when they are inside your home.
Even non-toxigenic mold varieties can cause health problems, especially when they are allowed to grow in high concentrations in a poorly-ventilated room. People with respiratory problems (like asthma) are particularly susceptible to mold illnesses, as are children and the elderly. Otherwise healthy, normal adults can experience “mold allergies” when they inhale too many mold spores. Common symptoms are associated with seasonal allergies and the flu, including coughing, sneezing, throat irritation, itchy eyes, drowsiness, fever, sinus pressure, and headaches.
Mold in Massachusetts
Citizens of Massachusetts should be especially mindful of mold and mildew growing in their residences. The Bay State contains a large coastline to the east and forested mountains to the west, which combines to make for a very wet state. Massachusetts’ largest city, Boston, averages over 125 days of precipitation per year, some of which comes in the form of spring rainfall and some in the form of winter snowfall. Constant precipitation and high humidity causes homes to remain soggy throughout the year. Not only that, but Massachusetts is known to experience severe weather disasters. In 2011 Hurricane Irene ravaged the state with high winds, torrential rains, and flooding, causing damage to numerous buildings throughout New England.
Massachusetts is also a state with a very large population, most of which is located around urban centers, like Boston, Lowell, and Springfield. Massachusetts has the fourth highest population density in the United States, which means there are plenty of compact domestic units—apartments, condos, and townhouses—that people lease, rather than own. The housing crisis and economic downturn in the late 2000s and early 2010s has affected Massachusetts just as it has the rest of the nation, causing increasing numbers of people to rent property. With weather factors that are ripe for mold growth combined with a population full of tenants, Massachusetts residents need to know their rights when it comes to mold in their rental property.
National Renter’s Rights
With the exception of Colorado and Arkansas, renters across the nation enjoy two standard renter’s rights that can help them navigate tenant-landlord issues regarding mold. The first is the right to a safe, habitable home. This basic right of habitability means that regardless of what your landlord puts into your lease agreement, you are entitled to a home that is free from basic health hazards, including pest infestations, chemical pollutants, and dangerous levels of mold.
Secondly, renters have the right to get needed repairs addressed in a timely manner. This means that if you request, in writing, that your landlord fix a leaking roof, the landlord has to remedy the problem within a reasonable time. This timeframe is usually 14-30 days, unless the repair is an emergency, in which case it must be addressed immediately. Make sure you put your repair requests in writing, make copies of them, and if possible send them through certified mail. This will help in the case of a legal dispute over the repair. Also, make sure you make your repair requests as soon as you discover them. Allowing a water pipe to leak will only lead to more problems, including a buildup of mildew.
There is one major caveat to remember. If you (or your personal property) are the cause of the damage, the landlord is not responsible for the repairs. Suppose, for instance, you own a fish tank that leaks onto the floor, causing mold to grow. You would be responsible for all of the damage that results. Landlords are responsible for common areas and the basic structures of the property. Renter’s insurance may help to pay for damage you cause, depending on your policy.
Massachusetts Tennant’s Rights
Renter’s rights in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are similar to the basic national rights with regard to repairs and habitable living environments. The State Sanitary Code (105 C.M.R. 410) defines what “habitable” means for Massachusetts renters. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Guide to Landlord/Tenant Rights states that if a renter believes his residence is uninhabitable “the tenant may request that a code enforcement officer or the local board of health inspect the apartment. An inspector can then come to the apartment, review the conditions, and order the landlord to fix the problem if deemed necessary. In the event that the landlord still fails to fix the problem, then a tenant may move out, even if there is a lease or rental agreement in place.”
In some situations where mold has infested an apartment, the renter can pay a reduced rent or subtract the cost of hiring a professional mold remediation team to fix the problem. The Massachusetts Attorney General recommends that you seek out qualified attorneys for legal advice if you plan to withhold any part of your rent or attempt to take your landlord to court.
The Massachusetts Consumer Rights Board states that a tenant is entitled to a house that is “weathertight, watertight, and free from chronic dampness,” which is important to know since mold only grows where there is moisture. The Consumer Rights Board also has certain “repair and deduct” laws for instances when the tenant’s repair requests have not been fulfilled. The renter must go through all the legal steps before doing a “repair and deduct,” including having a Board of Health code inspection done for the property. Typically in “repair and deduct” situations the tenant is also allowed to break a lease and move out of the building.
Play It Safe
When it comes to mold in your home, it is best to err on the side of caution. First of all, never rent any apartment that has an existing mold problem. You can always get a trained, certified mold inspector to conduct a thorough investigation of your rental property if you suspect that there is mold in your rental. If you think you are experiencing the health effects of mold exposure, you can hire an indoor environmental specialist to test your home for the presence of mold. Lab results will tell you if Stachybotrys or any other dangerous mold is in your home.
If your rental property is infested with mold, make sure it is removed by a professional mold remediation company. Whether you or your landlord is responsible, insist upon an actual specialist. Untrained landlords and handymen will not have the correct equipment to make sure the job is done right and the occupants are not exposed to excessive amounts of mold in the air. When mold is aggravated during cleaning, it can release even more spores than usual. Mold growth in your home is not something to take lightly. If you know your rights and go with the pros for remediation, you’ll have a much safer, healthier experience in your rental property.