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Renters fight with apartment complex about mold

By Elena Watts
March 29, 2014 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated March 28, 2014 at 10:29 p.m.

The HVAC vent into the living room at Crystal Levi's apartment at Victoria Station shows a mold-like residue, which Levi feels is  Stachyborys mold.

Crystal Levi, 29, was diagnosed with a skin infection two months after she moved into her apartment in 2012.

Most of the sore, open lesions on her torso and limbs have healed, but the sores on her scalp have caused her to shave her head.

"I thought it was dandruff, but it kept getting thicker, and my hair started falling out," Levi said. "I've been on antibiotics for years."

Her husband, Michael Levi, 42, and their three children - ages 7 months, 6 and 11 - also have experienced health problems since moving into Victoria Station Apartments.

Levi suspected mold might be the underlying cause of her family's deteriorating health, which brought to light the battles that apartment tenants face when they want mold assessed and removed.

Levi contacted Denise McInturff, regional property manager for Greystar Management Services in Houston, who said Levi would have to pay for the expensive mold assessment. She learned the inspection would cost about $1,000, which she could not afford.

Instead, Levi ordered a $45 IAQ Pro five-minute home mold test kit online. Two samples tested positive for mold, so Levi mailed three more swabs to a laboratory.

For $95, the lab returned reports documenting the mold growing in her apartment.

Levi notified McInturff and local apartment manager Sonia Tillery about the results Feb. 17. Both disputed Levi's qualifications to test for mold and questioned the authenticity of the results.

'I'd move tomorrow ... '

Another apartment within the same complex was not available, so the apartment managers offered to release the Levis from their lease. The family could move out immediately, but its options were limited by financial constraints and housing availability.

"I'd move tomorrow if I had the money," Crystal Levi said after that offer.

On Feb. 19, the assistant manager of the apartment complex delivered advance notice of lease termination, which gave the Levi family 90 days to vacate its apartment.

The next day, Levi mailed a certified letter to the management company.

She requested copies of the lease contracts that were signed in July 2012 and an explanation for early termination of the lease, which did not expire until January 2015.

Four days later, Tillery called Levi to inform her that the termination notice was given by mistake.

"We dispute the claims alleged by the resident regarding this matter," wrote Tillery in an email. "Nonetheless, we have been very responsive to her service requests and have even offered her options in the event that she wanted to seek other accommodations, which she declined."

To escape what they believe is an unhealthy environment, the Levis eventually agreed to an early termination of their lease, which now ends Monday.

On March 24, Crystal Levi and her children moved to Austin to live with her family for the remainder of the school year.

Michael Levi remains in Victoria, where he works. He plans to rent a motel room until his family returns this summer.

For about $500 more each month, the Levis have found another place to live.

The Better Business Bureau gives Greystar Management Services an "F," its lowest rating, based on criteria including 60 complaints received during the past three years.

Tillery told Levi she would have to sign a form when the family moved that would release Victoria Station Apartments from responsibility for any future health problems, Levi said.

Nothing was ever said again about the release, which Levi said she had no intention of signing anyway.

Health effects of mold

Allergic reactions to molds are the most commonly experienced health effects in humans, according to the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Excessive moisture is generally the cause of indoor mold growth. The fungi form and spread on various kinds of damp or decaying organic matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Inhalation is the primary way people are exposed to mold, but exposure can also happen through the skin, according to the National Toxicology Program.

Fungi such as Aspergillus, Penicillium and Stachybotrys can produce potent toxins.

Health effects from exposure to such toxins can vary greatly depending on the person and the amount of mold in the home, wrote April Maxfield, Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, in an email.

Health issues include mucous membrane irritation, skin rashes, dizziness, nausea and suppressed immune systems, according to a 2006 Healthy Homes Initiative report issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Individuals who have asthma or mold allergies may find their symptoms worsening. Furthermore, people with severely weakened immune systems are at risk of developing serious fungal respiratory infections.

The two oldest Levi children had asthma when they moved into apartment 1712, but their symptoms have intensified. Both have also developed allergies and headaches.

The 11-year-old daughter began using her rescue inhaler up to four times per day and her nebulizer often twice daily. She had used each about once each month before moving into the apartment.

The youngest son was diagnosed with respiratory and ear infections when he was 4 months old. He has had eight similar infections since.

In addition to skin irritations, Crystal Levi was diagnosed earlier this month with respiratory, sinus and ear infections. Her husband, who does not spend as much time in the apartment because he works, has experienced nosebleeds.

The primary care physician who has treated the family cannot definitively confirm that exposure to mold has caused the ailments plaguing the Levis. None of the family members has seen an allergist. Michael Levi started his own company, and their private health insurance coverage begins May 1.

Texas mold laws

On Feb. 19, ServPro of Sugar Land/Victoria, a state-licensed mold remediation company, inspected Victoria Station apartment 1712.

Twenty minutes after the visit, the Levis received the mistaken notice of lease termination.

"This dispute is between the tenant and the apartment complex," said Darren Miller, operations manager with ServPro.

Licensed mold assessors and remediators must perform the work when mold growth covers 25 contiguous square feet, which is a law enforced by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The department regulates the way licensed companies assess and remove mold, but it does not force landlords to perform the services.

The law also prohibits the same company from assessing and removing the mold because of a conflict of interest.

When the amount of contiguous square feet cannot be determined visibly, as with mold growing inside air ducts and vents, an experienced mold assessor should perform the assessment, said Annabelle Dillard, manager for the Environmental Hazards Group with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

ServPro of Sugar Land/Victoria is not licensed by the state to assess mold growth.

Although Levi requested mold assessment and remediation, the apartment complex could have ordered a different service, Dillard said.

"I assume an official assessment with the required documentation was not performed because they know they are not licensed," Dillard said, referring to ServPro. "The complex could have hired the company to simply clean the air ducts."

On March 24, Levi filed an official complaint with the state health department.

The department will evaluate and determine jurisdiction under the Texas Mold Assessment and Remediation Rules, wrote Christine Mann, a department press officer, in an email. And the department will investigate.

"It's not unusual to find mold with swab samples," Dillard said. "Mold is everywhere."

Many other indoor allergens and contaminants, such as off-gas from upholstery, could be the cause of the family's health issues, she said.

"It is difficult to show conclusively the cause of the symptoms," Dillard said. "We don't know at this point."

Tenant rights in Texas

Tenants and landlords should try to work cooperatively to investigate and correct moisture problems and remove mold growth, Maxfield wrote in an email message.

Texas Property Code requires landlords to make a diligent effort to repair problems they have been notified about that materially affect the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant, Maxfield wrote.

"You have the right to demand that the landlord repair any condition that materially affects your health and safety," according to the tenant rights page on Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's website. "Under Texas law, by renting you the property, the landlord guarantees that the unit will be a fit place to live."

Tenants should understand the terms of their lease agreements, Maxfield wrote. Some leases in Texas include specific information about mold, and most specify how maintenance and repair concerns are handled.

"They tried to cover it up and brush it under the rug," Crystal Levi said. "If they had just admitted the truth and removed the mold, I would have been satisfied."

The Levis paid rent to Victoria Station Apartments on time every month while they lived there.

"We will make every effort to continue to try and resolve this matter amicably," Tillery, the apartment manager, wrote in an email.

Editor's note: This story was updated April 7 to reflect a correction published April 6.

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