In #TestimonyTuesday, Baltimore, MD, Renters' Rights

Mold is dangerous to everyone, but some people are especially vulnerable, like the many Baltimore children who suffer from asthma. Despite this danger, Baltimore’s housing code does not protect vulnerable renters from the breathing problems, headaches, and worse conditions caused by mold.

Earlier this year, Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry held a hearing to discuss the dangers of mold in housing. JUFJ and other members of the Baltimore Renters United coalition participated in this hearing to help shed light on the dangers and impact of mold in housing.

This hearing was the first step towards housing justice in Baltimore, and we look forward to working with the Council and advocates to make our housing code work for all Baltimoreans.

Beatrice Bastiany and Sharmel Rhyne, clients of the Public Justice Center, generously shared their stories with us and with the Council at that hearing:

Beatrice Bastiany, Baltimore resident – 11th District
Council Bill 19-0148R (Resolution) – Informational Hearing – Mold in Housing
Hearing of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
November 12, 2019

My name is Beatrice Bastiany. In March 2018, I moved into 2324 E. Federal Street in the Broadway East Neighborhood in the 13th District.  A few months later, after a late-summer rainstorm, the basement of this house flooded with 1-2 inches of water.  At first, I tried to wet-vac the water and move my belongings. But soon I found that water would continue to enter the property – in the basement, from kitchen windows, and through the walls. By October 2018 I started feeling unwell. My symptoms included sneezing and having trouble breathing. I notified my landlord about my health issues and told him that I believed they were due to bad air quality inside the house. The air quality had gotten so bad, I insisted that my landlord clean out the air ducts. He replied, “Don’t worry about it, you’re not using the heating system right now.”

 

Around that time, I was moving some clothing around in my bedroom on the second floor and noticed mold on them. I checked my second bedroom, which I rarely used, and found mold all over the walls, caused by a water leak I hadn’t realized was there. Within the next few days, I also started to see mold growing on my kitchen walls.

 

For the next three months, I tried mitigating for the mold myself using bleach. I also bought air filters to put over the ducts. Within a month, the filters had turned black. Furniture that belonged to my grandmother, that I had placed in a second-floor bedroom, became covered in mold and unsalvageable. I lost an $800 bed to mold. I had to buy three air purifiers and wear medical masks just to sleep at night in my home. I missed work because of asthma attacks, which I had not had in years. My daughter began using an inhaler, which she had never had to do before. 

 

By the turn of the calendar year, the landlord began using court cases to get me out of the house because I kept insisting that he make repairs. I wanted to have my day in Court so that I could finally explain to someone what had been going on for the last 7 months. At this point, I had never heard of rent escrow and wasn’t aware that there was a legal process available to force my landlord to make the repairs. When my landlord took me to court for failure to pay rent, I explained my situation to the judge and established a rent escrow account. A city inspector came out and cited multiple violations including water in the basement, windows that were nailed shut, and a hole in my bedroom floor. But the inspector did not cite the mold. Instead, a violation was written for the “dark substance” on my basement wall. I later asked a lawyer I met at court why the inspector hadn’t been more specific. She replied that city inspectors couldn’t cite for mold because there are no regulations about mold on the books.

 

After the inspection, my landlord had a maintenance person spray an unidentified substance on the floor in my basement and pour some concrete on the bottom of the outside wall of my house. Despite this, during rainstorms, I continued to have flooding, and there was condensation on the inside of my walls in the upstairs bedrooms. My landlord did not bother showing up to the next escrow hearing in April. This delayed repairs even further. At the next hearing in June, the court found that the conditions still had not been corrected.

 

In early July, the court ruled in my favor since the repairs had still not been made, almost a year since my basement first flooded. The escrowed money was disbursed to me, and I moved into a new property. You may be asking yourself, if the conditions were so horrible, why didn’t you move earlier? I wanted to move, especially after the mold began to negatively impact my health, but I could not afford it. Moving is an expensive and time-consuming ordeal. In addition, I made the decision to stay and fight because I refused to let my landlord get away with it. I knew that if I moved to a new property, the escrow case would be dismissed, and the landlord would re-let the property without having made any repairs. 

 

In my case, Baltimore Housing inspected the property in March 2019 and gave the landlord 30 days to correct all violations. There was no sense of urgency. Housing cited the landlord in May 2019 for failing to abate the violation notice. I doubt the landlord was ever fined for the delays. 

 

Despite all the difficulties I went through, I consider myself lucky. I was lucky enough to have a flexible job that allowed me to take off work to attend court dates. I am lucky enough to have found the Public Justice Center who informed me of my rights and fought along side me. I am lucky to have been raised to believe that my voice matters and to have the courage to stand up for myself.

 

I worry for the tenants who are not so lucky. I worry for my neighbors who had even worse conditions in their property but who did not feel like they had the resources or ability to stand up against our landlord. I worry for the next unsuspecting tenants who will move into 2324 E. Federal Street without knowing the battle I’ve gone through for the last year.

 

Landlords should not be able to get away with this. I ask that the Council take action to hold landlords accountable for mold in rental units. This ordeal has had an enormous impact on me emotionally, financially, and physically. We need to have stricter health and housing codes in place so that tenants don’t have to go through what I went through.

Sharmel Rhyne, Baltimore resident – 9th District
Council Bill 19-0148R (Resolution) – Informational Hearing – Mold in Housing
Hearing of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
November 12, 2019

I am a renter in the 9th district. I’ve lived in my home for years. Last year, the house started to have serious problems with mold. I see it in the windows, my kitchen cabinets, my basement, even growing from the carpet. I asked my landlord to fix this issue. He said he would fix the property only if I paid more in rent. I pay $1200 already.

 

I started to feel sick in the home, and my son did, too. My coughing and congestion at home are so persistent that I only really notice them when I’ve been gone from the house for a few days. I’m in a nightmare right now. I’m living out of boxes, so the mold doesn’t spread to my belonging. I can’t keep food in my cabinets because it gets contaminated. I can’t have my granddaughter over because I’m afraid she’ll get sick. My doctor told me I have to move. I’m really trying to find a new place, but who is there to help us afford the sudden expense of relocation?

 

I’ve been urging my landlord to do something about the mold and other conditions for more than a year. When he does fix anything, which is rare enough, it’s a patch job, and the mold comes back in a few weeks. I’m sure the problem comes from the leaky roof, but I’m starting to doubt he’ll ever fix it.

 

After months without any relief from the landlord, I decide to stop paying rent. I ended up in rent court, where I was able to get legal help. The Public Justice Center explained the new licensing law, which states that a landlord my not charge or collect rent for unlicensed rental properties. To get a rental license, the landlord must upload a lead certificate, register the property with HCD, and pass a basic health and safety inspection. My home was not yet licensed, but we were stunned to find out that it had passed an inspection.

 

The Public Justice Center helped me report the conditions in my home to HCD, where we were assured that a supervisor was informed. Still, HCD issued the rental license for this property on October 14 of this year.

 

The new rental licensing law was meant to protect renters like me. Somehow, my landlord was able to find a home inspector willing to give the house a passing grade, despite the visible mold. The rental license checklist lists no questions about either the appearance or the smell of mold. If anything, these inspectors can optionally cite mold issues in Question Q of the inspection form, which reads: “Are there any other readily observable problems that in an inspector’s opinion represent an immediate threat to the health and safety of the occupant?”

 

Even when the City’s own inspector came out to the property and noted eight violations, many referenced “possible mold.” I was told this is because City inspectors are not empowered to test for mold. I ask City Council – if it looks like mold, smells like mold, and makes you sick like mold, why can’t it be reported to HCD as mold? Why can’t the City hold property owners accountable for what’s making my son and me sick?

 

If I hadn’t had legal representation, my landlord might have evicted me already. But even with a lawyer, I see that the landlord will get away with patch repairs and collecting rent for a house that is making me sick. Baltimore City law is not up to the task of protecting its renters from mold. We need to do better.

The Baltimore Renters United coalition includes: Jews United for Justice, Public Justice Center, Right to Housing Alliance, Greater Baltimore Democratic Socialists of America, and Communities United. Want to get involved in our work for renters’ rights? Email Rianna (rianna@jufj.org).

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