Editor’s note: This article is one of a series written based on public information requested from the City of Bellingham Planning and Development Department for data covering Bellingham rental inspections between June 13, 2016, when the city began the inspections, and Feb. 9.
The data is not inclusive of all inspections as many landlords opt to use private inspectors who are not required to file detailed reports with the city. Links to additional stories can be found at the end of each article.
The City of Bellingham’s Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program, now in it’s ninth month, is designed to monitor the health and safety of rental units to protect tenants. But it is possible that a home could pass inspection and still have a serious health threat common in the rainy Pacific Northwest—mold.
The program’s preface states, “No checklist can encompass every possible scenario and not all apparent violations present a threat to the health or safety of tenants.” Yet within the checklist of 400 items, mold is not included.
Bellingham’s damp and humid conditions create perfect conditions for mold to become a serious problem, especially if a home has leaks that allow moisture inside, Martin Cohen said, an industrial hygienist and safety professional at the University of Washington. Cohen believes this to be a major contributing factor to why numerous Bellingham residents frequently cope with mold in their rental units.
About 20 percent of the U.S. population is allergic to mold, according to Mold and Bacteria Consulting Services, a lab that tests mold and bacteria. And although reactions to mold exposure vary from person to person, it can especially be an issue for individuals with allergies and/or asthma.
Not All Health Hazards Covered by Inspection
Prior to Bellingham approving its own rental inspection program in March 2015, the 1973 Landlord-Tenant Act was the only statute regulating the relationship between tenants and property management companies. While the city’s new program has found numerous health and safety code violations in its first round of inspections, the city’s inspection does not address mold and some other less common potential health risks such as lead paint, lead pipes that may contaminate drinking water and asbestos.
The inspection checklist examines heating systems, room conditions, emergency evacuation accessibility, carbon-monoxide and smoke detector conditions, rodent and pest infestations and properly secured windows.
Although mold is a natural fungus that can be harmless, long-term exposure to certain strains of the fungi can potentially pose mild to severe health risks, primarily upper-respiratory reactions. If certain strains of mold are disturbed, spores can potentially go airborne, thus increasing the probability of toxic spore inhalation.
“Not all molds are hazardous, but when it comes to mold growing inside a home, one should assume that it is toxic black mold,” Whatcom County Health Department health specialist Bill Angel said. “Black mold spores are as ubiquitous as any kind of mold.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention federal agency, high levels of toxic spore inhalation can potentially cause headaches, fatigue, congestion, sneezing, coughing, pneumonia and asthma among other nonspecific symptoms.
Tenants, especially those with allergies or asthma, say mold makes their rentals uninhabitable, but they have few resources when it comes to cleaning up existing mold.
“For anybody who thinks the idea of a tenant’s union is outrageous, look at the labor movement, that’s how we got the weekend. People coming together and being in solidarity. That’s what we need to do to make sure that everyone in Bellingham has a safe and affordable home.”
Galen Herz, one of the Bellingham Tenants Union creators
Sophomore Marie Blue says she is stuck in a High Street rental home with mold problems so severe that she has to leave her windows open all the time, even when it’s snowing outside. Since signing the lease, it soon became evident to Blue that the recurring exposures to mold was the main reason why her asthmatic and allergic symptoms were worsening.
Blue has tried multiple times to get her property management company to fix the problem, but said she has been ignored.
“I feel like my hands are tied. The property management company we rent from has not responded to my emails and phone calls and dismissed my concerns when I went to the office in person. You practically have to wear a fire cone on your head in order to get their attention,” Blue said. “It is extremely frustrating to feel so helpless.”
Less common problems not addressed by the rental-inspection checklist, such as lead paint and water running through corroded pipes, can pose serious health risks when ingested, depending on levels of consumption.
Children are the most common victims of lead poisoning because their bodies absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The county health department recommends that people living in homes with corroded lead pipes not drink immediately out of the faucet and let the water run for approximately 30 seconds before using the water. Due to little acknowledgment about lead within the checklist, renters may not be aware of lead exposures.
As for lead-based paint, U.S. Census data shows that 1.56 million homes in Washington state were built prior to 1978 when the sale of residential lead-based paint was banned. In 1992, congress passed the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, also known as Title X.
The act requires that before signing a lease for housing units built before 1978, landlords are required to provider renters with an EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint and disclose any known information concerning the presence of lead-based paint and its potential hazards. While it is mandatory that landlords disclose information about lead-based paint, they are not required to fix the problem.
Unlike disclosure requirements regarding lead-based paint, there are no specific landlord disclosures regarding asbestos in a rental property. Angel said the likelihood of tenants coming into contact with asbestos is low, unless it is disturbed.
Since the 1970s, commercial and industrial companies have rarely used asbestos. In 1989, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. Even though asbestos was banned in most cases, many houses built prior to 1989 still contain asbestos.
“People did not realize the danger of asbestos when it was introduced,” Angel said. The inhalation of asbestos can lead to asbestosis, a lung disease that affects the tissue lining the lungs.
While materials such as lead paint and asbestos are dangerous, they can be easily caught through testings. Mold is another beast, Cohen said. “It is difficult to accurately measure because of its erratic sporulation patterns.” Property management companies are not legally obligated to remedy mold exposures.
Students Living with Affects of Mold
After Blue made numerous attempts to inform property management about the severity of the mold she was living with, they ultimately suggested that she physically scrape off the mold residue herself.
“It’s funny because if I was to scrape off the mold which has eaten its way into the wood, I would have had to most likely pay hundreds of dollars to replace what I attempted to scrape,” Blue said. “They trap you in that if you do take action to remove mold, you most likely will not get your security deposit back.”
In addition, Blue was unaware of the potential health risks that can be posed when disrupting mold, as disruption can cause spores to go airborne.
Unless proven structurally embedded by a health inspector, tenants are left with mold maintenance responsibilities requiring individual efforts if one wants to reduce and eliminate mold. Due to this, relationships between tenants and property management companies are increasingly tense.
Although landlords are required by Senate Bill 5049 to inform renters of potential health hazards of mold, Blue feels she and her roommates were not adequately informed of the magnitude of mold problem upon the signing of their lease in March 2016.
Alumna Rheanna Johnston, a cofounder of the Bellingham Tenants Union and someone who became concerned after she struggled with mold problems in her rental, broke her lease after she became aware of the severity of mold within the house she planned to rent.
“When we toured the house we were aware of minor mold problems but it wasn’t until we planned to move in that we realized just how prominent the issue was,” Johnston said.
Johnston complained to property management who succumbed to her wishes to break the lease and move to a different property, she said.
The mandated disclaimer about potential health threats of mold serves as a warning to renters, however, it has its shortcomings. Often a student will do a walk-through prior to moving into a rental, but it takes place while previous tenants are still living in the unit. Because the walls are covered with tapestries, posters, desks, beds and couches it can be difficult to gauge the severity of mold. Because the disclaimer is signed months before tenants move in, the truth behind the property’s condition can be camouflaged.
While Johnston was allowed to break her lease and move into a different property that was still managed by the same company, Blue wasn’t as fortunate. She is trapped in her lease until the end of the contract.
It’s these types of problems that played a key role in propelling a group of Western students to form the Bellingham Tenants Union in January 2017. The union, created by Galen Herz, Johnston and Ben Larson, is looking for ways to protect students and community members from being taken advantage of by landlords. Its strategy is to advocate for safe, affordable, equitable and sustainable housing options for renters in Bellingham.
“So many students don’t realize what kind of rights they have,” Johnston said. “For many students, it is the first time they are living on their own having to manage leases and bills. We realized this, which is one major reason why we formed the Tenants Union.”
What Tenants Can Do
Compounding the problem of finding safe housing is a Bellingham rental vacancy rate between 2 and 3 percent, according to a survey conducted by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington. The national average is 6.8 percent.
“When the vacancy rate in Bellingham is nearly half of what the national average is, landlords are able to get away with a lot more because students are competing and desperate to get a place,” Herz said. “This is what gives landlords power.”
While in school, students, who are short on both money and time can become easy targets for property management companies, Herz said. “Blue’s case exemplifies how crooked slumlords are in Bellingham. They take advantage of students and vulnerable people.”
“I’m barely making it with my living expenses as a working student,” Blue said. “ It is a battle of David versus Goliath. We as the tenants are David and the property companies are Goliath.”
Like Herz, Dick Conoboy, a representative for the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission, agrees that property management companies take advantage of students.
“Security deposits are not given back, they count on students not taking legal action and they demand too much for initial deposits,” Conoboy said. “There are all sorts of chicanery with these landlords.”
Conoboy believes that the Bellingham Tenants Union can substantially reduce tenants being taken advantage of if renters unify through the union, he said.
“For anybody who thinks the idea of a tenant’s union is outrageous, look at the labor movement, that’s how we got the weekend,” Herz said. “People coming together and being in solidarity. That’s what we need to do to make sure that everyone in Bellingham has a safe and affordable home.”
The union is open to all residents in Bellingham. It seeks to educate tenants about their rights when dealing with landlords.
“A lot of the time tenants don’t know what to do,” Larson said. “They feel completely powerless. A common mindset by tenants is that, ‘It’s only for one year and it is an issue we won’t have to deal with after our lease is up,’ but then it gets passed on to someone else and the problem continues. Even worse, it builds on itself.
The union believes that every tenant’s story deserves to be heard by lawmakers and supported by a collective power in order to guarantee laws are being abided by.
“Laws are in place to protect tenants, but there is a lack of enforcement in making sure those laws are followed,” Herz said. “As a tenant’s union we can build collective power to make sure that those laws are followed and help provide necessary changes for everyone in the Bellingham community.”
Header image: A hole in the ceiling at 1310 Grant St. where repairs are being done to a leaking roof. According to tenants, the property management company did not complete repairs until the unit was inspected by the city. // Photo courtesy of Erasmus Baxter and Alexis Edgar