Lauren Godles and I testified yesterday before the City Council on legislation that could have a significant impact on tenants – especially low-income tenants – throughout the District of Columbia: Bill 20-569, the Air Pollution Disclosure and Reduction Act of 2013. The Bill includes requirements for landlords to disclose information about mold in residential housing to their tenants. It also grants authority to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) to issue regulations for the inspection and citation of mold.
Far too many of Legal Aid’s housing clients struggle with mold in their homes. They are rightfully concerned about the significant deleterious effects of mold on their own health and the health of their families. In some cases, doctors or other health care providers have warned the tenants that the presence of mold in their homes may be causing new health problems or exacerbating pre-existing conditions such as asthma. These health effects are particularly acute for the elderly, young children, and individuals already in poor health – groups that too often are living in poverty and struggling simply to maintain their housing. Our clients also are frustrated because there is currently no law or regulation in the District that directly addresses mold in rental housing. As a result, District agencies do not and will not inspect or cite landlords for mold, leaving tenants with few legal remedies to address this serious housing condition.
Our written and oral testimony yesterday was the latest milestone in our continued efforts to advocate on behalf of our clients on this issue. Almost three years ago, one of our then-legal assistants, Theresa Anderson, authored a blog entry citing the problem that this legislation tries to address: that tenants in D.C. cannot turn to any District agency to get their landlords to remediate mold infestation. Neither DDOE nor the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has been willing to take the lead on developing regulations or doing anything else to hold landlords accountable. In September 2011, Legal Aid received a Flom Incubator Grant from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation to dedicate additional resources to litigating housing cases that involved conditions of mold or bedbug infestation.
More recently, a little over a year ago, I testified on these same issues affecting our client community before the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Environment, Public Works, and Transportation, at a Public Oversight Roundtable on Air Quality. And for the past six months, Legal Aid has been working with other housing advocates from across the District to draft a comprehensive legislative proposal that would empower and require that DDOE promulgate and enforce regulations on disclosure and elimination of mold in residential properties.
Yesterday was an opportunity to share with the Council our clients’ experiences with mold and the expertise that Legal Aid has developed while representing and advocating on behalf of our clients over the years. Lauren – in her Council début – shared photographs and stories from several of Legal Aid’s many clients affected by mold. (Those photos she included as exhibits in her testimony can be seen above.) In my testimony, I stated Legal Aid’s position that while the pending bill is an important first step to recognize and address mold, it can and should be strengthened in various respects. We made specific recommendations about ways to further strengthen and clarify the proposed disclosure requirements. We also recommended that the Council amend the current bill to create comprehensive mold legislation, including a broad definition of mold with rebuttable presumptions; clear responsibilities for landlords with respect to disclosure and remediation; remedies for tenants when their landlords fail to remediate or disclose mold; and clear authority, funding, and enforcement tools to DDOE for successful implementation of the law.