First deal reached in mold lawsuits

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer October 15, 2013 10:37 pm

Mary Rowe knew she risked losing her housing a year ago if she complained about the mold and flea problems at her apartment along Ransom Avenue in Brookings.

But Rowe is neurologically impaired, making her exceptionally sensitive to all kinds of chemicals, and the mold was exacerbating her skin and breathing problems. And she couldn’t afford to relocate. 

Her only other option, she said, was to move to the streets.

This week, she and the owner of the apartment in which she used to live, Earl Upton of Rogue River, reached a settlement regarding the problem. 

Six other cases are wending their way through the courts, said Eugene attorney Steve Baldwin, who represents the renters.

A woman, who only identified herself as Jill, is among the new tenants in the apartments.

 She said the owner painted the unit, eradicated the mold, replaced the carpet, fixed appliances and provided her with a bottle of the special fungicide — bleach does not kill black mold — to kill the mold should she spot any.

She hasn’t yet. And she’s quite happy with her new apartment.

Rowe, however, is now living in Gold Beach. The $1,400 she received in compensatory damage from the courts will not cover the costs of the security deposit she lost and medical expenses she incurred, but winning the case alone it is victory enough, she said.

“I hope this will help other tenants who are in bad situations and scared to stand up for their legal rights to feel more empowered,” Rowe said. “That’s the most important thing. Landlords have their issues, but tenants, especially low-income renters, go through life so often in rentals where laws are not obeyed, and we have to decide how much we’re going to take so we’re not homeless. It’s a constant little dance throughout the course of our lives as renters.”

The other renters affected by the problems at the collection of houses have all since moved and could not be located for comment.

A mess of mold

Several tenants in the area last year complained to the city about excessive mold and broken infrastructure in their units in the area of First Street and Ransome Avenue. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

One unit had mold in every room — despite efforts by the tenants to keep it at bay with every-other-day cleanings with bleach. The mold there was likely due to the fact that one wall of the apartment is nestled in the embankment and windows did not properly seal.

That unit’s carpet was wet to the touch and had no ventilation. When the tenant — who last year asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal — moved in, there was no glass in the bathroom window frame; it now boasts glass, but cannot be opened.

And she and her husband, who had closed off the bedroom and moved into the living room to separate themselves from the mold that draped all their possessions, had the health of a new baby to consider.

“Mold’s a whole subject in itself,” said Steve Baldwin, a civil litigation attorney from Eugene who is representing the former tenants. “Is there anywhere in Oregon that doesn’t have it — no matter how clean a place is? Even if you have ugly looking mold, is it causing health problems? Insurers won’t insure for mold.”

Mold was just the proverbial canary, however.

“Here, the mold was just another problem on top of no smoke alarms and rats everywhere, broken sinks, broken toilets, broken windows, broken door locks…” Baldwin said.

Half of a house across the way had slumped toward an adjoining ditch, making it impossible to close doors and windows. One property has a leaking roof and has sported a tarp for years, drainage patterns use to force water directly at the foundations of other homes, water leaked through electrical outlets, and broken water and sewer pipes resulted in sewer backups.

Upton told the low-income renters when they moved in that the units were older and needed “constant ventilation.”

After the complaints were made public, Upton said he planned to have a structural engineer examine the shortcomings of that unit; it is currently vacant.

And some homes were filthy, clearly due to the living standards of the renter: trash piled high in the garages, which in turn attracted rats; dirty carpets and floors and generally unkempt units.

But city officials were unable to help, as housing issues as they pertain to health are not in their jurisdiction. The city could have red-tagged the buildings — but that would have entailed kicking out people who said they’d rather endure the substandard conditions than be homeless.

And they all agreed “there has to be someone, some organization” that addresses such issues.

There isn’t. The tenants learned the hard way.

They sought help through nonprofit organizations that deal with health, welfare, building codes and other specialties, all to no avail. The county doesn’t have a health department as it relates to buildings, and was at the time in the process of streamlining some of its departments by spinning them off into nonprofits themselves.

Representatives of those organizations — even the tenants — agreed that low-income renters can’t expect to have luxury accommodations. But there is a degree of expectation that housing will be decent: clean, healthful and functional.

Collectively, the renters moved out. And they hired Baldwin.

All had also complained about the manager of the units, who allegedly would enter their apartments unannounced, improperly repair appliances and threaten renters who said they were going to report him to the authorities.