Try explaining to a 6-year-old boy that he can’t live with his mother because her apartment is ridden with mold.
Shanica James has tried. But her son, Cafarie, a smart, high-spirited first-grader, just doesn’t understand.
For the past four months, ever since James, a 27-year-old nursing home worker, discovered pervasive dark mold hiding behind the drop ceiling tiles in their living room, they’ve lived some 90 miles apart.
Worried about her son’s health, James sent him to live with his father in Vineland, Cumberland County. Meanwhile, she’s been living alone in their musty one-bedroom apartment in Brick, which is so damp it literally rains indoors.
Whenever it rains or snows, she says, water seeps from the roof down into the second-floor unit, forming beads of moisture that cling to the discolored ceiling like dew on a bruised peach.
One day last month, falling droplets pit-patted onto a waterlogged couch every so often as James told her story, her gloom matching the grimness of her surroundings.
“A week ago was my son’s birthday, and I couldn’t even get him here because of the mold,” she said, overcome with emotion.
“He called me and said, ‘Mommy, you coming to pick me up?’ and I said, ‘I can’t pick you up, because of the mold.’
“He was so mad,” she said, wiping her tears. “It’s just terrible the way I’m living.”
You can watch James tell her story in the video below.
At first her Brick apartment seemed fine, but then the black mold appeared and it turned Shanica James’ life into a living hell.Peter Ackerman
A bucket of bleach and a little elbow grease won’t solve James’ housing issues.
A breakdown in New Jersey’s tenant protection laws, coupled with the lack of any regulations pertaining to mold, has left her in an impossible bind.
James says that when her landlord failed to do anything to correct the mold issues, she withheld her rent, as allowed under the law. But the strategy backfired miserably.
After the landlord filed a complaint to have James evicted, the best deal James’ lawyer could get was for her to move out within 30 days and let the landlord keep her $1,350 security deposit, even though her apartment never had a certificate of occupancy as the law requires.
She wants to leave — who wouldn’t if they were living in a $865-a-month terrarium? But because she now has an eviction filing on her record, even though the case was settled, James says other landlords won’t rent to her.
Since the 1970s, New Jersey has had a reputation for having some of the strongest tenant protection laws in the country.
But the roach- and rat-infested apartments the Asbury Park Press visited as part of its “Renter Hell” investigation last year show how badly the system is broken.
The reasons, the Press found, include shoddy inspections, renters who risk being blacklisted merely for asserting their rights in court, and negligent landlords that hide behind New Jersey’s limited liability corporation laws to avoid having to pay fines and make repairs.
The people most likely to fall through the cracks are low-income renters like Shanica James. A single mom from Jamaica, she makes $13 an hour working 60 to 80 hours per week as a certified home health aide and nursing assistant at a nursing home in Wall.
Mold adds another element of risk to the calculus of renting.
Eradicating it is another roll of the dice since mold remediation contractors in New Jersey don’t need to be licensed or have any special certification, as they do in New York and a handful of other states.
Mold is a fungus. To thrive, it needs a warm, moist environment and something to eat, be it drywall, insulation, carpet glue or dirt. All it takes is a leaky pipe or a buildup of condensation due to insufficient ventilation to create the ideal growing conditions. Sometimes it’s visible, as it is on James’ ceiling, and other times it’s hidden, quietly lurking inside walls, basements, crawl spaces or air-conditioning units.
Mold is everywhere, even in the tidiest, most well-maintained homes. There are thousands of different varieties. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the term “toxic mold” is a misnomer. Mold by itself isn’t toxic or poisonous, but certain types of mold release toxins into the air that can make some people feel sick if they have a mold allergy, a weakened immune system or a lung condition such as asthma or emphysema, the CDC says.
Symptoms of mold sensitivity range from sneezing, coughing and watery eyes to more serious respiratory problems. There is no established link between mold exposure and more serious health problems, such as lung hemorrhages or memory loss, the CDC says.
No testing has been done on the mold in James’ apartment so she doesn’t know what type it is, though she says the musty air makes her feel congested.
New Jersey has strict rules on the books to guard against other household hazards, such as lead paint, asbestos and radon gas. But there are no state or local codes regulating mold. Nor are there any federal thresholds for mold. The township code inspector who visited James’ apartment when she first noticed her ceiling leaking in November didn’t even mention mold in his report, since it’s not covered by the municipality’s property management code. “Water droplets visible on ceiling above tiles,” the report states.
James says she contacted the Ocean County Health Department. She says she was told the department doesn’t test for residential mold.
Brian Rumpf, the department’s director of administration and program development, said the presence of mold in a restaurant would qualify as an unsanitary condition that would have to be corrected.
“But in a residential context our function is really education,” said Rumpf, who is also a Republican assemblyman representing part of Ocean County. “We’re not a code enforcement agency in that regard.”
It’s the same in Monmouth County and throughout the state.
“Because there’s no standards, there’s nothing in an ordinance we can write up as a violation,” explained David Henry, the health officer for the Monmouth County Regional Health Commission, a shared public health agency that serves 21 Monmouth County towns.
“Even if you do the testing and determine that it’s one of the toxic mold spores, we still don’t have any regulatory authority to address that situation,” he said. “Basically, it winds up being a negotiation between the landlord and tenant.”
James lives in Olympic Gardens, an 80-unit apartment complex off Route 88 in Brick.
James and her son moved there on June 1, 2016. An appreciative family whose elderly parents she cared for until their deaths helped get her settled. She says she was so excited to have a nice apartment that she slept on the floor the first night before her furniture arrived.
James says she didn’t know that the apartment didn’t have a certificate of occupancy, which is required whenever a new tenant moves in. To get one, the apartment would have had to have passed a municipal inspection, but in a letter to James’ lawyer the code enforcement supervisor in Brick, Christopher J. Romano, said no certificate of occupancy had been issued for the unit since June 1, 2016, when James’ lease went into effect.
Multi-family rental properties also need a certificate of inspection from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is responsible for inspecting each property every five years. Olympic Gardens obtained its state certificate in 2015, after correcting 80 violations cited in its last DCA inspection, records show. But James’ apartment isn’t listed as being among the units the state inspector checked.
The owner of Olympic Gardens at the time James moved in was Longwood Avenue LLC, which used a beeper store in downtown Lakewood as its mail drop. Longwood Avenue sold the property on June 26 to Lakewood-based Brick Apartments LLC for $10.1 million, records show.
James says she had no complaints about the apartment until November, when she noticed water leaking from the ceiling tiles of her living room. She says she contacted her landlord multiple times about the mold and water leaks by telephone and email but, she said, “nothing was done.”
James’ lease identifies the principal operator of Brick Apartments as Jake Klor. Klor did not return three telephone messages left with the management company that operates Olympic Gardens. The company, Olive Tree Management, responded by email with the following statement:
“Brick Apartments LLC only recently took over this property. Our company prides itself on taking difficult properties and improving them. We take every legitimate complaint very seriously.”
In a separate email, the company added: “While we aren’t prepared to have an interview on the matter, a little bit of research will show that one of the tenants in question is in legal proceedings due to violations of their lease.” The company declined further comment.
At the urging of a co-worker, James contacted the Brick Township code enforcement department. The inspector uncovered the mold when he removed ceiling tiles to trace the source of the leak, James says. You can read the inspector’s follow-up report below.
In January, James hired a lawyer, Brian F. O’Malley, and began withholding her rent payments. Within days she received an eviction notice.
A legal doctrine known as the “implied warranty of habitability” ostensibly protects tenants in situations where a rental unit isn’t fit for anyone to live in.
It means the property owner is obligated to provide a tenant with a livable home. But as James would discover, asserting that right carries hazards of its own.
Under New Jersey law, a tenant in a substandard rental can pay for repairs and then deduct the amount from their rent. That’s not a viable option, though, in instances where mold remediation and structural repairs can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Another option is to stop making rent payments until the problem is fixed. If the landlord files an eviction complaint, the tenant can use the warranty of habitability as a defense in court in a separate proceeding called a rent abatement or “Marini” hearing, named after a 1970 New Jersey Supreme Court case.
But to qualify for such a hearing, a tenant is first required to deposit any rent money owed into an escrow account held by the court until the case is resolved. O’Malley told the Press that his initial plan was to negotiate James’ move to another unit in the same complex, rather than to seek a Marini hearing. But he said he did advise James to deposit the back rent she owed into an escrow account.
James didn’t do that. She says she used $1,000 of the approximately $3,000 in back rent payments for January through March to hire O’Malley and needed the rest to pay other bills. As a result, O’Malley said, he had little leverage to work with.
“I saw the apartment too and I thought it was a disgrace for anybody to have to live there,” O’Malley said, “but we weren’t able to push the habitability issue.”
The best deal he could get James was 30 days to move out, rather than the five days required when there’s an eviction order. In exchange, the landlord kept James’ $1,350 security deposit. Because the apartment didn’t have a certificate of occupancy, the landlord wasn’t legally entitled to back rent, O’Malley said.
Seeing no other option, James signed the agreement.
There is, however, another course of action available to tenants in these situations: a constructive eviction.
Tenants can argue in court that the landlord has broken the lease by not maintaining the rental unit in a livable condition, thereby violating the warranty of habitability. If successful, the tenant is free to move without having to pay off the balance of the lease, and the landlord cannot keep the security deposit.
But there’s a risk there, as well. The judge may not agree that the problems are that severe, in which case the lease remains in effect.
New Jersey’s lack of mold regulations isn’t unusual. A 2015 analysis by Elizabeth Ann Glass Geltman, an associate professor at the The CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy in New York City, identified 11 states that regulate mold remediation: Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.
A few states, including California, have taken steps toward establishing standards for mold in indoor air, but none have standards in place yet. Some cities have adopted their own mold ordinances.
A few cities, including New York City and San Francisco, have enacted ordinances that make landlords responsible for cleaning up mold.
Attempts have been made over the years to established standards for mold in New Jersey, without success.
Among the lawmakers who have tried is state Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean. His bill, crafted in response to the mold issues caused by flooding from superstorm Sandy in 2012, met with resistance from the state Department of Community Affairs, he said.
“New Jersey wanted national standards set by the federal government first,” Singer said.
Singer’s latest effort, introduced in January, is S-460, titled the “Mold Safe Housing Act.”Co-sponsored by state Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Morris, it would allow tenants living in mold-contaminated rental housing to request that their landlord have the mold effectively removed, or relocate them to safer rental housing at the landlord’s expense.
In addition, the bill would require all rental housing in the state to be inspected for mold whenever there’s a change of occupancy. Multi-family rental properties also would have to be checked for mold as part of their five-year state inspection.
A separate bill, A-1433, would require the state Department of Community Affairs to establish procedures for inspection and abatement of mold hazards in residential buildings and school facilities, and certification programs for mold inspectors and mold hazard abatement workers.
Richard Buckley, director of the Rutgers University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory in Millville, said those standards are the sticking point. The problem, he said, is that there is no scientific consensus on where to set thresholds for the many types of molds that can populate a home
“I think the whole idea of a threshold is the issue because I can tolerate a lot more (mold) than my mother, who’s 85,” Buckley said. “So where do you set a standard? Do you set it for me, or do you set it for her?”
Whatever becomes of the proposed legislation, it will come too late for Shanica James.
With her April 11 deadline to move out looming, she reluctantly made plans to rent a room in a private home in Neptune where a co-worker’s niece and her father also live.
It’s a temporary arrangement, she hopes, until she can find a place of her own. In the meantime, her son Cafarie will remain with his father in Vineland.
James said she was feeling sorry for herself until a few weeks ago when she happened to run into her next-door neighbor at Olympic Gardens, Jashauna Creadle.
The two women hadn’t spoken before, and they got to talking about the problems James was having with the mold in her living room.
James invited Creadle in to see for herself. Then Creadle pulled out her phone and showed James what the mold was like in her apartment.
Judging from the photos, it appeared to be even worse.
Creadle, 27, says an Olympic Gardens maintenance worker treated and re-painted the affected area inside her bedroom closet more than a year ago, but she’s worried the mold has come back, or never really went away. She says she’s “too afraid to look” under the ceiling tiles to know for sure because she has nowhere else to go.
A single mother like James, Creadle shares the one-bedroom unit with her two daughters, ages 9 and four months. The 9-year-old, Jalylah Vasquez, has asthma and told the Press the musty air “makes my throat itchy and I start coughing.”
“It’s like every month she’s sick. She misses a lot of school which causes me to miss a lot of work, which makes me fall behind on my rent,” said her mother, who is currently unemployed. “The pulmonologist explained that as long as we’re in a home with mold, she’s not going to be better.”
The monthly rent for their apartment increased this year from $800 to $950, she said. “I just want to get out of here,” Creadle said. But with an eviction filing on her record, as well, she’s finding it difficult, too. Olive Tree Management declined to comment.
Her neighbor’s predicament put her own problems in perspective, James says.
“I don’t have it bad,” she said after visiting Creadle’s unit, “she does.”
Like Creadle, James said she’s been too afraid to check behind the ceiling tiles in her bedroom to see if there was mold there also, preferring to believe that her bedroom, at least, was a sanctuary from the mold lurking right outside the door.
After returning from Creadle’s apartment, though, she mustered up the courage.
Stepping onto the air-conditioning unit sitting on the floor, James reached up and, with her finger, gingerly lifted the corner of one of the tiles, just an inch or two.
Seeing a black substance, she quietly lowered the tile and stepped down.
“I was in shock,” she said later. “I’m not safe at all in that place.”
Shannon Mullen: @MullenAPP; firstname.lastname@example.org; 732-643-42