Rats in the ceiling, holes in the floor, broken windows, exposed electrical wiring, and overflowing dumpsters. These are just a few of the housing problems I have encountered in my role as a legal assistant in the housing unit at Legal Aid. Part of my job is to visit our clients’ homes and document the housing code violations I encounter, and, over the past two years, I have seen a myriad of problems. The one “good” thing about the issues listed above is that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) can cite the landlord for the violations and impose a fine for each one. (Whether or not they enforce that fine is another issue altogether.)
However, I have seen one serious and dangerous issue time and time again for which DCRA has no guiding regulations and for which there is little accountability in D.C.: house mold.
The Center for Disease Control cites a study by the Institute of Medicine that found that exposure to indoor house mold has been linked to upper respiratory problems in otherwise healthy adults and children. In DC, a city where approximately 6% of residents have asthma, one-third of whom are under the age of 18, the prevalence of house mold is particularly disturbing. I have encountered mold issues in apartment buildings in all parts of the city. In some apartments, the air quality was so poor that I found it difficult to breathe. Many of our clients with severe mold report health problems consistent with those cited by the CDC: difficulty breathing, asthma, and sometimes even coughing up blood.
Legal Aid’s housing unit is currently litigating several cases in which house mold is a central issue. In one such case, I was tasked with finding out how to request an air quality inspection from the city on behalf of our client. Though DCRA had already completed an inspection of the property, the reports did not address the problem directly, partially because the citations that can be applied to mold are limited. Trying a different route, I contacted the D.C. Department of the Environment (DDOE) and eventually reached an indoor air quality specialist who used to complete air quality inspections in D.C. homes. However, he informed me that the D.C. Department of the Environment has stopped performing air quality inspections. The bureaucracy got in the way.
There has been a back-and-forth between DCRA and DDOE regarding the issue of house mold. DCRA is the only agency that has been given enforcement authority by the city to fine landlords for violations of the D.C. Housing Code. However, the D.C. Housing Code contains no specific regulations regarding mold or indoor air quality in residential spaces. DCRA inspectors do not know how to cite landlords when they encounter a problem, and they have no certified air quality specialists on staff to be able to measure the extent of any problems that they might encounter.
For several years, DDOE air quality specialists would get calls from tenants suffering from poor air quality due to house mold. They would “put on [their] masks and capes” (so to speak) and inspect for the toxic air pollutants that mold causes, then write up comprehensive reports and send them to DCRA. However, DCRA rarely took action. Eventually, DDOE insisted that DCRA take on the inspection responsibility. DCRA and DDOE worked together to create the website, http://mold.dc.gov, and DCRA committed itself to be the key agency for mold enforcement. Yet, over a year later, the calls are trickling back in at DDOE because DCRA has failed to keep its promise
What needs to be done to address this issue and work towards healthy living conditions for all D.C. residents? The two components that seem to be lacking are guidance and accountability. D.C. needs to create regulations regarding air quality in rental properties so that city inspectors have a regulation on which to hang their hats, and DCRA needs to be held accountable for properly citing landlords who rent unhealthy or unsafe properties. To quote a DDOE inspector, “It’s not an adversarial relationship [between DDOE and DCRA]. It’s about accountability.”