Toxic Mold and Rental Properties: What Rights Do Tenants Have in Georgia?
Everything Georgia Tenants and Landlords need to know regarding Georgia law and Toxic Mold
Toxic mold is a topic that is beginning to become more prevalent in news outlets and with homeowners as more information and science come out about the importance of indoor air quality. As professionals in mold remediation and toxic mold cleanup, we often see the worst examples of just how harmful black mold can be to properties and tenants. Mold thrives in high humidity areas with minimal ventilation, i.e., basements, attics, and crawl spaces.
If left unchecked, a minor mold problem can quickly become a Georgia property owner’s worst nightmare, with cleanup and repair bills well into the thousands and even potential lawsuits from tenants claiming that toxic mold made them sick.
ARE LANDLORDS LIABLE FOR MOLD IN GEORGIA?
As more and more information from medical experts comes out about the seriousness of toxic mold exposure, government officials are taking note. However, there are NO Federal laws regarding acceptable mold exposure or guidelines for building and rental standards.
While states such as California and Texas have established laws to standardize and regulate mold testing, the state of Georgia currently has no such guidelines. The Georgia Department of Health has this to say:
“A rental property may be subject to a local housing code. You can contact local county or city officials to determine if a code is applicable in your area. Generally speaking, these codes do not contain or enforce any mold-related standard. Therefore, all renters should become familiar with how the landlord-tenant relationship works to resolve disputes or problems.”
WHAT ARE LANDLORDS IN GEORGIA RESPONSIBLE FOR?
As a tenant, you are entitled to a clean, safe, and habitable environment. As the property owner, the landlord or management company is responsible for maintaining such an environment. Responsibilities include making repairs such as leaky pipes, roofs, windows, exhaust fans, etc., which could lead to elevated moisture levels resulting in mold growth.
Common Landlord Expectations and Responsibilities Include:
- Following all health and safety laws to ensure that the structure and common areas are safe.
- Address any repairs that are needed to keep your residence safe and inhabitable.
- Maintain all electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation, and other landlord-provided features to ensure they are in working order and safe.
- Provide heat and running water / hot water.
- Repair any cracked, chipped, or peeling paint and remove any paint containing dangerous/illegal amounts of lead.
IS A LANDLORD RESPONSIBLE FOR DISCLOSING MOLD IN GEORGIA?
Currently, there are no Georgia statutes or regulations that require landlords and property management companies to disclose high concentrations of toxic mold found in their properties to tenants or buyers. However, under Georgia law, landlords must inform prospective renters if the property has experienced damage due to flooding at least three times in the past five years. Any mold infestation should be included in this damage report.
“Georgia Code 44-7-20 provides that property owners supply tenants with written notice if a rental property is prone to flooding. The statute requires that, “prior to entering a written agreement for the leasehold of that property, the owner shall, either directly or through an agent, notify the prospective tenant in writing of the property’s propensity of flooding if flooding has damaged any portion of the living space covered by the lease or attachments thereto…” An owner is legally liable for failure to provide flood notice to tenants in advance of the beginning of the tenancy.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR APARTMENT OR RENTAL HOME HAS MOLD? - TENANT/LANDLORD MOLD DISPUTES
The first thing any renter/tenant should do before moving into a property or space is to thoroughly document the condition of the unit during the walkthrough. Tenants are often quick to check all of the boxes as everything is fine, and landlords/property managers, particularly larger ones, and their legal teams will use this checklist against the tenant later on when a concern is raised, or a repair is requested. Renters have the right to inhabit a unit that is maintained and in good condition. Since there are no federal or Georgia laws that establish acceptable levels of mold spores inside the home, you must know your general tenant rights. When renting a home, it’s typical for the property owner/property management company to provide tenants with a mold addendum.
What is a Mold Addendum?
- maintaining the rental free of dirt, debris, and moisture that can harbor mold
- require reasonable care to close all windows and other openings to prevent water intrusion
- immediately notify the landlord of any significant mold growth
SETTLING MOLD RELATED DISPUTES WITH LANDLORDS IN GEORGIA
As discussed previously, there are no regulations specifically regarding mold, but tenants can do a few things.
- Mold is caused by excessive moisture and poor ventilation; by being diligent in reporting any water leaks from the ceiling, roof, sink, tub, etc., and reporting any water stains on walls or ceilings, hopefully, mold issues can be solved before they even begin.
- Once you’ve reported your concerns to the landlord/property manager, document EVERYTHING with written records and photos. Keeping accurate records and pictures is essential, especially if problems are not appropriately addressed.
- If you begin to notice signs of mold growth, report it to your landlord/property manager immediately, again with written records and photos. Having a paper trail and established timeline is incredibly important if other actions become necessary.
- If you are experiencing any symptoms that are associated with toxic mold exposure, begin to document them. When did you start experiencing these health issues? Have you sought medical attention? How much have you spent on prescriptions, doctor’s visits, etc? How many days of work have you missed? Document everything in the event that legal action is needed.
Some Symptoms of Toxic Mold Exposure Are:
- Chronic clogged throat
- Wheezing and cough
- Nose and throat irritation
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or uncontrollable vomiting
- Skin irritation
- Persistent cold-like or flu-like symptoms
- Burning, itching, watering eyes
- Heart palpitations
- Aggravation of asthma
- Exhaustion after routine activity
- Serious swelling of legs, ankles, and feet
- Serious swelling in the torso or stomach
- Prolonged muscle cramps and joint pain
- Once you have documented and filed your complaints with the landlord/management company, it is up to them to fix any problems. If there is mold, have it professionally remediated within a reasonable time. If the landlord ignores your request or doesn’t take adequate steps to solve the issues, you may have legal options
TENANT STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH TOXIC MOLD INFESTATION IN GEORGIA
Federal and State Courts have recognized two common legal strategies for tenants dealing with toxic mold in their apartments or rental homes.
While this information is accurate to the best of our knowledge, this is not to be considered as legal advice.
Georgia landlord-tenant law does not outright state that a tenant in Georgia has the ability to withhold rent in response to habitability issues.
One way to force your landlord into making necessary repairs is to withhold rent. Because landlords are required to provide safe and habitable living conditions for their tenants under the warranty of habitability, if a landlord breaks this obligation, the tenant’s obligation is to pay the full amount of rent stops until repairs are made. Tenants may withhold all or part of the rent until repairs are made, depending on the seriousness of repairs. The law does not state how much or for how long a tenant can withhold rent.
If rent withholding is something you are considering, it is extremely important that you do it correctly.
When Can A Tenant Withhold Rent?
Before a tenant can withhold rent, certain requirements must be met. If the tenant can answer yes to these five questions, rent can legally be withheld.
- Do defective conditions exist within the property?
- Do these conditions “endanger or materially impair” the health, safety, or well-being of anyone living in the home?
- Does the landlord/property management company know about the defective conditions (and do they know this before the tenant is behind in their rent)?
- Were the conditions caused by someone or something other than the tenant or someone under the tenant’s control (guests or other members of the household).
- Can the landlord/property management company make repairs without the tenant having to vacate the property permanently?
If the answer is yes to all five questions, then the tenant can legally withhold rent, and the landlord cannot evict the tenant, but be aware that they may try. If a landlord tries to start the eviction process, they may be violating other laws.
Withholding Rent Gives You The Power to Negotiate
Unfortunately, rent withholding tends to be the most successful way to get a landlord to make repairs and is particularly successful when multiple tenants join together. While withholding rent, the tenant is in a position to negotiate the following:
- When repairs will begin and be completed
- How much rent is paid/withheld while repairs are being made?
- How much rent will be returned once repairs are completed?
PROTECT YOURSELF WHEN WITHHOLDING RENT
Withholding rent does not mean that the tenant is entitled to live in the property rent-free. It is simply a bargaining tool to get landlords and property management companies to make repairs. Once repairs are made, the tenant must resume paying rent.
One of the best ways the tenant can protect themselves, besides documenting EVERYTHING, is to set the withheld rent money aside in a separate bank account. While not required, there are two reasons why this is a good idea. First, if the landlord tries to start the eviction process, the tenant can show the court that they could pay and simply withheld rent to force repairs. A separate bank account gives the tenant more credibility in the eyes of the judge. Second, it’s unlikely that a judge will find the conditions so poor that they allow the tenant to withhold 100% of the rent, so if the judge orders repayment of partial rent, the tenant will have the money to pay and avoid eviction. Legally, only a judge can force the tenant to pay back any of the withheld rent.
BE PREPARED FOR HOW THE LANDLORD MAY RESPOND
While the tenant may have the right to withhold rent, the landlord may try to evict. The best way to prevent eviction is to ensure everything is documented and a proper paper trail established. Seek professional legal advice from an attorney or government agency.
Repair and Deduct
Under certain circumstances, tenants in Georgia have the right to make repairs and deduct them from their rent to pay for them. One of the advantages is that the tenant often gets the repair done on their timeline, but in the process, they are also taking responsibility for making sure the repairs are done correctly.
When Can A Tenant Repair and Deduct?
Similar to withholding rent, before a tenant can repair and deduct, certain conditions must be met. If the tenant can answer yes to these five questions, they are within their right to repair and deduct.
- Are there violations that “endanger or materially impair” the health, safety, or well-being of a tenant that has been certified by a housing inspector or that a court finds exist?
- Has the tenant given the landlord or her agent written notice of the violations?
- Did the landlord fail to substantially complete repairs within 14 days after this written notice or within such a shorter time if ordered by a housing inspector?
- Were the conditions caused by someone or something other than the tenant or someone under the tenant’s control (such as a guest or a member of the household)?
- Has the tenant given the landlord access to the property to make repairs?
While the tenant may have the right to repair and deduct, they should:
- Notify the landlord/property manager in writing that they plan to hire a contractor to remedy the problem.
- DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Keep copies of repair receipts and ask for a detailed statement from the contractor detailing the repairs.
- Subtract the repair costs from the next rent payment and NOT make other improvements aside from fixing the problem.
While repair and deduct is a legal option, the tenant should be aware that landlords may argue that a repair was unnecessary or completed at an unreasonable cost. Be sure to notify the landlord/property manager and ideally get them to agree to the price before beginning repairs.
AVOID RENTING PROPERTIES WITH POTENTIAL MOLD PROBLEMS
While probably easier said than done, one of the easiest ways to avoid the headaches associated with mold and getting landlords to make repairs is to avoid the property altogether.
When searching for a property to rent or lease, consider these factors:
- Basement apartments, especially here in Georgia, tend to be prone to flooding moisture issues. If mold exposure is a concern, avoid these types of properties.
- When touring potential properties check for kitchen and bathroom fans. Units without them likely have moisture issues.
- Ask about the property’s history, specifically when was the last time the roof was replaced, have there been any plumbing leaks or flooding. All of these are signs of potential mold problems.
- Renting in a multi-story building? Ask about flooding in the basement where the HVAC unit is; any mold spores in the basement will circulate through the HVAC system into the units.