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Code takes a step to address mold complaints

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 by Jo Clifton

In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri, numerous Austin renters found their homes uninhabitable due to water and the resulting mold. Many were forced out of their apartments as a result and the city experienced a surge in the number of complaints about mold.

In May, City Council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to come up with a plan to address those complaints. Cronk asked Austin’s Code Department to look into the matter. Council Member Greg Casar was the lead sponsor on the resolution asking for solutions.

As department Director José Roig explained in a recent memo, perhaps the most important fact about mold remediation is that there is not “an established best practice for designing ordinances or laws specific to the presence of mold.” The state of Texas, the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency have no established regulations related to indoor mold growth and none have recommended mold testing, according to Roig.

Staff members surveyed both large and small cities throughout the state and found that no Texas jurisdiction “performs mold testing or cites the presence of mold as a violation,” the memo reveals. Of the 26 cities surveyed, only Frisco and Garland even referred to the word “mold” in their respective housing or property maintenance codes. Roig said that, as a matter of practice, managers of code departments in both jurisdictions “find other provisions within their respective codes and ordinances to address the moisture intrusion, rather than the mold provision itself.”

A nonprofit organization called ChangeLab Solutions suggests explicitly identifying the presence of visible mold as a violation of local codes. However, Roig wrote, “given the state regulations in Texas around the qualifications and processes required to identify a substance as mold, this approach is not feasible to implement at the local level.”

However, as Casar told the Austin Monitor via email, “This report is one step forward, but the next step is needed. The city needs to make it very clear that landlords must remove mold from apartments or else they’re violating the law. Nowhere else in the state regulates mold, and Austin has an opportunity to lead the way in protecting residents from this serious health concern. My office plans to work with the Code Department, housing advocates and renters to make this change as soon as possible.”

Based on their research, staff members made five recommendations, beginning with helping renters to increase access to renters insurance. Roig suggested that the city provide additional funding through its Rental Housing Development Assistance program.

Online comparisons of rates for rental insurance found that the average cost was $24 a month in Austin, or $288 a year. This is the same as the average rate in Dallas and lower than the rate in Houston, which is $32 a month. Statewide, the average is $26 a month, or $312 annually.

But insurance simply addresses the aftermath of mold in rental housing, which is not always easy. Roig suggests improving his department’s inspection practices related to “moisture intrusion” in rental housing. He said the city should establish general repair guidelines related to water damage and educate stakeholders regarding use of companies licensed to assess and remediate mold damage.

According to Roig, the Code Department will need approximately $44,000 for one-time expenses and $7,500 in annual expenses for equipment to evaluate water damage.

“When the Austin Code Department needs to take enforcement action against property owners,” Roig wrote, “inspectors rely on lab-calibrated equipment that provide reliable and accurate results.” The department recommends pinless moisture meters, which use an electromagnetic sensor pad to measure moisture content up to three quarters of an inch below the surface. The meters, which will help inspectors identify excessive moisture, cost about $500 each.

“To outfit all code inspectors with this equipment will require a one-time cost to the department of approximately $40,000. Most models have warranty periods from 5 to 7 years, so the department will need to refresh these devices as they exit the warranty periods to maintain the reliability of the readings obtained,” according to the memo. Because of the budgetary impact, Roig recommends phased implementation. He suggests purchasing the equipment in batches over the next two to three years. In addition to spreading out the cost and having new devices come in over a period of time, Roig writes, “This approach will also allow the department to test the implementation of inspection procedures to identify any gaps or problems before the full equipment purchase is made.”

Austin Code has asked the Texas Mold Assessors and Remediation Association for guidance in developing inspection procedures for the department’s inspectors related to the appropriate usage of the moisture meters and identification of elevated moisture content, Roig said.

Roig also recommends sending the department’s most experienced inspectors to a three-day training at the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, where they will learn “procedures for dealing with different types of water damage, from potable water to grey and black water.” The course costs $400 per participant and Roig expects 10 inspectors to participate for a “one-time cost of about $4,000, with ongoing yearly costs of about $800 to account for attrition and promotions,” the memo says.

Photos taken by residents following Winter Storm Uri, courtesy of Greg Casar. 

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