Posted on Sun, Jun. 01, 2003

Tenants' pesky mold infestation part of trend

Herald Writer

For Charmaine and Derven Barrett, home is where the smell is.

Since late December, the couple's Pembroke Pines apartment has been infested with mold.

It has damaged most of their furniture and forced them to throw away shoes, clothes, and purses. They estimate a $5,000 loss.

They even have to sleep on a mattress in their living room because the musty mildew odor has permeated their bedroom.

Repeated attempts to eliminate the mold have failed, and now they want to move out of the Resort at Pembroke Pines, 11801 Pembroke Rd.

Barrett, 41, and his 34-year-old wife are members of a growing group of people with mold complaints.

In fact, it's the fastest-growing category of grievances received by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, a state agency that licenses apartment complexes.

''It's really common,'' said Geoff Luebkemann, the division's director. ``The typical complaint is that mold is occurring or reoccurring, and the management's reaction.''

Like the Barretts, homeowners throughout the country have had to deal with mold. Some spend large sums of money removing it from their homes, while others have had to abandon their property altogether.

Gary W. Jackson, a partner with the law firm Lewis and Roberts in North Carolina, said he has seen an increasing number of cases dealing with mold in the past two years.

''People and doctors began to connect the dots,'' said Jackson, who has handled cases involving mold. ``There's a huge increase in the amount of money insurance companies have dealt out because of it. Three or four years ago, there was no such thing.''

The Barretts said they have to air out their apartment if it has been closed for a few hours.

''Some evenings, we have to stay outside because the smell is so bad,'' Charmaine Barrett said.

Apartment mangers bleached and painted the walls and fixed a leak from the balcony when they learned about the mold in February, said Keith Olson, senior vice president of Waterton Property Management.

Despite these and the couple's own attempts to clean the walls of the apartment, the problem persists.

Cleaning is not enough, environmental experts say.

''If nothing is done to address the basic cause, nothing you do is going to be effective. In an apartment that may have a plumbing problem or leak, immediate action needs to be taken,'' said Tim Wallace, an environmental specialist for the state Department of Health's Division of Environmental Health.

Mold does have health effects, said Paul Johnson, an environmental scientist with the Broward County Health Department.

''You don't want mold in an indoor environment,'' Johnson said. ``It's a health issue and can trigger asthma in asthmatic people, can enhance respiratory problems, and immune-compromised people can be affected.''

Christine Rogers, a research associate for the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed that mold can exacerbate health problems.

''Exposure to mold is very clearly known to play a role in exasperating asthma,'' Rogers said. She researches mold on a grant.

The couple say they are suffering headaches and other medical problems because of the situation, making numerous visits to a doctor.

They keep the remainder of their clothes -- those that haven't already been ruined by the mold -- in bags to prevent further damage.

Inspectors from Luebkemann's agency visited the Barretts' apartment in February.

''Management wiped down with bleach or something and repainted with some type of wash. The mildew is coming up through the paint,'' according to the state report issued at the time.

Inspectors returned to the apartment on March 7 and said they saw no violations. They made another visit on May 6, and found mold again.

Olson said management returned to the apartment last week to bleach and paint it.

The Barretts said it was a halfhearted effort.

Other apartments with mold issues in the 13-year-old complex were taken care of, according Olson, who didn't say how many apartments were affected.

A Herald reporter visited the apartment recently and saw mold throughout, especially on the darkened walls of the bedrooms, the living room and below the bathroom sink.

The Barretts and management thought the problem was caused by a plumbing leak, which management said it fixed.

Renters should contact their landlords or management companies if they have mold problems.

''It's up to the landlord to take care of the situation,'' Johnson said.

In the event that a landlord doesn't comply, tenants can take very specific actions outlined in state statutes.

Larry Kaplan, assistant director of the Broward County Consumer Affairs Division, said tenants with mold complaints can contact the county's Zoning Code Services office at 954-468-3434. The office will investigate.

''In some maintenance-related cases, the tenants can legally terminate their lease without penalty,'' Kaplan said.

However, tenants must be able to show a lack of maintenance by the landlord created the condition and the landlord didn't take the adequate steps to fix it.

Kaplan suggests contacting the state's Division of Hotels and Restaurants and the county's Consumer Affairs Division with complaints.

''We will be glad to give them information on their rights as tenants,'' Kaplan said.

2003 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.