Opinion: D.C. mold law changes would help students in off-campus housing

Proposed changes create a much-needed enforcement mechanism to help tenants deal with mold

Opinion: D.C. mold law changes would help students in off-campus housing

The D.C. City Council is considering important new regulations for mold remediation in the District after an investigation by the NBC Washington I-Team revealed a pattern of mold problems and lack of housing law enforcement in D.C. The new regulations are essential for addressing ongoing and pervasive mold problems in D.C. housing.

These regulations have the potential to serve students who live off-campus, especially in non-traditional living arrangements like subletting, although it is not clear how it would affect on-campus housing.

Previous legislation has made piecemeal attempts to close a loophole that allowed landlords to avoid remediating mold in D.C. housing. However, it has not gone far enough to protect D.C. tenants, especially low-income and student tenants.

Currently, landlords are required to respond within seven days to complaints of mold that has grown more than 10 square feet and to remediate it within 30 days. However, no agency is tasked with overseeing this and landlords do not face any consequences for failing to comply. For many tenants, their only means of recourse when landlords ignore their complaints is to go to court. 

This legal structure leaves students living in off-campus housing especially vulnerable. With less money to spend and shorter-term housing needs, students living off-campus are more likely to forgo a lease and sublet an apartment. Without their name on the lease, they do not have the legal standing to take their landlords to court. Without as much life experience, students may also be more susceptible to landlords who initially pretend to remediate mold or who tell students that mold is not dangerous. 

Waiting for a case to go through court can also create a dangerous health situation, especially for tenants with existing respiratory problems, as old is linked to increased rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Some doctors and patients also suspect that mold is an aggravating factor in severe conditions like myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which causes debilitating fatigue.

Relying on the court system to enforce mold laws can also be prohibitively expensive for both the tenants and overcrowded courts. The D.C. Legal Aid Society estimates that half of the clients who need help with housing issues are dealing with mold that their landlord will not remediate.   The financial burden is especially onerous for low-income tenants who are less likely to know or be able to afford a lawyer, but also more likely to live in housing with mold problems. 

The cumulative effect of the existing legal structure puts the burden on tenants to prove their landlords failed to remediate mold and forces them to wait a dangerously long time for relief. The loophole can be too easily manipulated by landlords who take advantage of low-income and student tenants. Additionally, while the full extent of the health effects of mold is still being debated, allowing this much preventable mold to proliferate in D.C. housing in the meantime is a serious and unnecessary risk. 

The new legislation, proposed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, would require landlords who have received mold complaints to submit reports proving mold was eradicated. It also makes it possible to fine landlords who fail to submit reports and requires housing inspectors to become certified in mold detection. 

These changes would fill an important gap in current laws, which nominally require landlords to fix mold but have a weak hold in reality. This addition to existing laws would shift more of the burden toward the rightful bearer, landlords. 

The new legislation is not a perfect fix. It would only go into effect once mold has grown significantly and only after 30 days. However, the proposed changes are a step in the right direction. 

D.C. residents should call on their representatives to pass this legislation and prioritize the health and safety of their residents. By passing this legislation, the city council would be taking an important step toward protecting the most vulnerable tenants and ensuring safer and healthier housing across the District.

Carly Fabian is a senior in the School of International Service and a staff columnist at The Eagle.


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