It starts with leaky pipes, badly needed repairs, and a lack of awareness about a serious household problem—mold. But over the last decade, million-dollar lawsuits filed against landlords for mold problems in their buildings and new research on the health effects caused by prolonged mold exposure have generated major media attention across the country.
Those stories reflect the struggles of everyday tenants trying to remove mold from their homes safely, negotiating repairs with resistant landlords, and fighting with insurance companies for mold coverage. And the mold crisis caused by the Gulf Coast hurricanes is reinvigorating the national debate on the need for more comprehensive mold legislation.
Despite the increase in national attention, mold in New York is largely a silent epidemic. But from the luxury condos on the Upper East Side to the distressed tenements of Brooklyn, mold is taking hold of New York City. The number of calls to 311 requesting mold inspections is growing by the thousands each year, with Central Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan among the areas with the highest numbers of complaints.
Given the amount of time that people spend at home, exposure to household toxins such as mold and pesticides has a tremendous impact on people’s health. The skyrocketing rates of asthma and similar respiratory problems in New York City have been linked to the deteriorating housing conditions that many residents endure.
“Mold has emerged as a major asthma trigger, underscoring the message that housing is a health issue and we must improve poor-quality housing to improve the health of our communities,” says Yolande Cadore, organizing director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Other health effects linked to mold exposure include memory loss, sinus congestion, eye irritation, chronic fatigue, fever, sneezing, itching, coughing, and rashes.
The prevalence of mold problems is due, in large part, to the simple conditions that allow molds to grow. Mold can grow anywhere there is water, humidity, moisture, and oxygen. Bathrooms, kitchens, basements, and areas with chronic leaking (such as pipes, roofs, and radiators) are locations where it is commonly found. Mold can grow on a variety of surfaces, including sheetrock, plaster, wood, paper, clothing, carpet, and other surfaces that are kept wet. It can also grow for months without showing visible signs. At least 1,000 species of molds are common in the United States, some more toxic to humans than others.
Experts find a strong relationship between the age of the housing and the frequency of mold complaints. Since most of New York City’s housing stock was constructed before 1940, many residents find their apartments vulnerable to the kind of problems that contribute to mold, such as water damage from pointing, peeling plaster, old plumbing, cracks and holes in the floor, and roof leaks. Newer housing is also susceptible because of poor construction and modern designs with complicated air-conditioning and heating systems.
A simple leak that goes unrepaired can become an emotional, physical, and financial nightmare for many families. Barbara Skinner, a resident of an apartment building in Harlem, dealt with a persistent mold problem for over eight months. After noticing a black mold growing in her bathroom, she reported the problem to her management office. The building superintendent told her not to worry as he cleaned, plastered, and painted over the moldy area. Since this “repair” did not fix the source of the leak, it provided only a cosmetic solution. After two months, the mold reappeared on the ceiling and the wall of her bathroom.
During this time, Skinner’s 11-year-old grandson, a chronic asthmatic, became ill. “His lungs were not healthy, and the mold exposure triggered asthma attacks that were more frequent and more severe for him,” she says. To cope with her grandson’s respiratory problems, Skinner purchased an air purifier and tried to increase the ventilation in her apartment.
When the mold reappeared, Skinner once again alerted the building management of the problem. After almost seven months of dealing with the mold damage, the management office located the origin of her problem, “sweating pipes.” Finally, the maintenance workers removed the contaminated part of the ceiling and attempted to fix the pipe problem properly.
Skinner’s story is typical of the adversity that tenants face when trying to get landlords to repair mold problems. “Negligent landlords, poor code enforcement, and inconsistent city guidelines on mold remediation combine to create the mold crisis that we are seeing today,” says Cadore.
To increase awareness about the mold epidemic and create solutions for it, WE ACT is coordinating a citywide network of community-based organizations, the Our Housing Is Our Health Network, with the mission of protecting the health of tenants by improving substandard housing conditions through training, organizing and advocacy.
Jamillah Jordan is the Housing and Health Campaign Coordinator for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. For more information on tenants’ rights regarding mold-related repairs or to learn more about WE ACT’s “Mold Is Taking Hold” campaign, please contact her at (212) 961-1000, ext. 322.
“Don’t Let Mold Take Hold”
- Don’t wait; mold can grow quickly!
- Act fast and fix leaks immediately.
- Moisture control is the key, so keep your house dry.
- Be aware of discoloration of the walls and ceilings in areas with chronic moisture, such as bathrooms and kitchens (black, brown, and green are common colors of mold).
- Take photos of the mold conditions and damaged areas for your records.
- Inform your landlord of the mold problem.
- Instruct your landlord to follow the Department of Health guidelines for cleaning up mold growth.
- Document the repairs made by the landlord.
- If the repairs are done incorrectly (such as if the source of the leak is still unrepaired), call 311 to report the mold problem in your apartment.
- If the problem is building-wide, contact and organize other tenants in the building to pressure the landlord to make repairs.
- Take your landlord to court by filing an HP action (use the WE ACT “Mold Is Taking Hold” fact sheet as a resource to support your argument).
- Keep all receipts of items that you purchased if you try to repair the mold damage by yourself.
- Keep receipts of medical bills if your health problems were caused by the mold problem.
- Contact your City Councilmember and encourage them to support more effective policies on mold prevention and repairs.