Breaking The Mold

If you’re a property manager of a multi-family housing complex, one of the environmental issues you need to be concerned about is mold. There is always a little mold everywhere – in the air and on many surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some molds are harmless. Others can cause structural and health issues. It is critical for property managers to understand the risks of mold in their buildings and the best practices for preventing it.

Usually, you don’t find out about mold until a tenant calls and tells you that there is something black in the bathroom, and that it’s making them sick.

Then it’s too late to prevent mold. And you will likely be liable for the cost of cleanup and repairs, and for and the costs of any healthcare the tenant requires. In Massachusetts, a jury awarded a former condo owner $549,326 in damages and interest after she was exposed to mold that her doctors said made it difficult for her to breathe and forced her to leave her home after just a month and a half.

Left unchecked mold can cause serious, expensive structural damage to a building. Arguably, an even greater risk is the health damage to tenants from breathing mold-tainted air. One of the challenges in dealing with mold is that there are no required inspections and no minimum air quality standards that must be maintained. This puts most property managers in a reactive mode, which, as mentioned above, means you often don’t know that your property has dangerous levels of mold until it is too late.

Another risk with mold is that in some communities, San Francisco included, tenants often make their complaint to the Department of Public Health before contacting the property manager. This triggers an inspection by the health department, which in turn will create requirements that the building owner must meet to remove the mold and modify the building such that the source of the mold – poor ventilation, leaky windows, inadequate drainage on the property are a few – be removed.

Mold is especially common in moist climates like the San Francisco bay area. With rain and mist in the winter and fog in the summer moisture is a year-round concern. The San Francisco Department of Public Health says, “We are in a moist, humid environment. We have an extremely old housing stock –  the fourth highest number of pre-1978 housing in the country – and in old homes, windows were single pane and walls were badly insulated.”

Mold most commonly develops in walls, in insulation, near furnaces, in windows, under crawlspaces and beneath floors. Mold also may not announce itself clearly. In other words, you may not be able to immediately see or smell it, but it can still affect the occupants of a building and lead to illness, disrupted sleep, breathing problems and allergies.

Even worse, if mold spores get into a building’s ventilation and HVAC systems, and those systems are shared by multiple units, the problem can be exponentially worse. If undetected, mold spread through your HVAC system can cause chronic respiratory conditions in dozens of people.

The best way to stop mold is to prevent it. In order to do this, it is really important to perform regular inspections that look beneath the surface for mold or for conditions that are at high risk of mold, so that they can be strengthened.

There are tools available such as moisture meters that can measure moisture levels through walls and floors, giving you visibility to conditions you could not easily inspect otherwise. Regular inspections also give you a layer of protection should mold appear and a tenant accuse the property owner of negligence.To stay ahead of any mold and other hazardous material issues, we recommend that you develop a comprehensive environmental operations maintenance program that routinely reviews and documents property conditions.