Options limited when tenant finds mold, but SC senator says help’s on the way

For South Carolinians, finding mold in a rental property is nothing new, especially after big weather events and during the warm summer months.
Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 7:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 8, 2023 at 8:03 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For South Carolinians, finding mold in a rental property is nothing new, especially after big weather events and during the warm summer months.

But some tenants say another common problem is landlords who do not respond to tenants’ calls for help with fixing the issue.

“The majority of the complaints we get come after big weather events and major flooding,” Carri Grube Lybarker, the consumer advocate for the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs, says. “That’s when mold really starts popping up.”

Valerie Swabb says she wasn’t aware of any weather event causing a mold issue in the newly renovated home in Goose Creek that she and her family moved into sight unseen last year.

“The house had been recently renovated. It looked nice in the pictures,” Swabb says. “It seemed like it was going to be a great house.”

But Swabb says it wasn’t long before a stench started creeping out of the vents of the primary bedroom that smelled like “a cross between metallic and swamp water.”

Soon enough, Swabb says the stench wasn’t the only problem.

“My daughter missed so much school in the past year that she was almost held back last year,” Swabb says. “She had to do makeup time sitting in the school doing class because she had so many respiratory illnesses.”

Swabb says she suspected mold in the vents of her home was making her family sick. Despite countless calls and emails, she couldn’t get her landlord to come out and fix it — a problem the SCDCA says they hear about all the time.

“Oftentimes, [tenants] will tell a landlord, and the landlord will not respond to a complaint or otherwise refuse to handle the mold issue on the property,” Lybarker says.

Lybarker says the department has seen an uptick in mold complaints over the last few years, however, SCDCA can only provide tips to tenants. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control also provides tips and information on its website, yet neither agency is in charge of holding landlords accountable.

In fact, no agency in South Carolina is in charge of holding landlords accountable.

“Even the folks who do mold abatement and come in and try and get rid of mold aren’t licensed in the state” Lybarker says. “There’s no certification process or anything like that. Mold is really an area that is untouched by South Carolina law — there’s no specific law on it.”

One state senator is looking to change that.

“There’s a huge hole in the system that there is no oversight,” Sen. Darrell Jackson of Richland County says. “It’s unfortunate.”

Jackson says he’s been working on legislation for years to fix what he calls a “lack of oversight” regarding landlords not fixing mold issues. He introduced a new bill early this year to amend the Healthy Rental Housing Act, which looks to provide mandatory mold remediation for tenants whose calls for help go unanswered.

“I hope there is an appetite among our colleagues to actually do this,” Jackson says. “To me, this is so clear cut: people’s lives are at stake. None of us would like to live in a mold-infested place, and I think we shouldn’t expect any tenant, it doesn’t matter what their economic levels are, to live in those types of situations.”

Jackson says in the future, he’d like to add consequences to the bill for landlords who don’t follow the law – something that doesn’t exist right now. Right now, state officials say there are really only two options when tenants find mold, and the work order requests they submit go unfulfilled: bring your landlord to court or break your lease.

Lybarker says to follow these steps:

  • Let your landlord know about the issue. Make them aware specifically about the repairs that need to be made.
  • Write a letter (return receipt requested) to the landlord – Lybarker says there is a 14-day timeline the landlord has to abide by to make, or at least start, repairs.
  • In that letter, let the landlord know you will move out if those repairs are not made.
  • If you are not satisfied with the landlord’s fix and/or lack of response to concerns, you can bring them to court.

Back in Goose Creek, Swabb took the situation into her own hands, using a petri dish kit to test for mold herself.

“Following the directions, you can tape [the kit] to an air duct and blow the unit for 30 minutes,” Swabb says. “Within 12 hours, you could start seeing spots, and within 36 hours most of the dish was covered and there were at least four different kinds of mold in the dish.”

Swabb says, fortunately, her lease was ending anyway when the situation was at its worst.

“Since we moved out of the house, and we’ve been living with my mother-in-law since we still haven’t found somewhere to live yet, [my daughter] has not been sick one single time,” Swabb says.

Swabb goes on to say that she doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she went through - a message echoed in Senator Jackson’s bill.

“Help is on the way,” Jackson says. “We, meaning the state, has failed [South Carolinians] in not providing remedies or not passing laws that will make this more difficult to happen.”

“I think these companies buy up the houses that nobody is going to buy. They slap a fresh coat of paint over it to make it look pretty, and then they work by getting desperate,” Swabb says.

Senator Jackson says he’s pushing for an emergency hearing on his bill because he says people’s lives are on the line, and landlords and rental companies are in part to blame.

Jackson says concerned citizens can call the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman to request an emergency hearing on the bill, as well, by calling Chairman Sen. Luke Rankin at 803-212-6610.

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