The weeks and months following the February disaster saw hundreds of violations related to potentially unsafe housing conditions logged throughout Austin, including dozens for interior water damage that can often tie to mold issues.
“No one should be trapped living in an apartment full of mold and collapsing ceilings. ... These health and safety violations that have lasted for months at the hands of poor management are inexcusable," District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said in a May statement.
In response to the complaints, a City Council resolution sponsored by Casar and passed in early May tasked city staff with reviewing local and state policy related to mold in rental units and improving how Austin addresses renters' complaints. That review was detailed in September in an Austin Code Department report laying out the city’s current approach to taking on mold complaints and how that process could be improved. Items of interest to the department included renter's insurance, code staff training and review of city policy.
Casar said the report provided a foundation for next steps to take on the issue, and that he plans to continue looking into how the city can protect and assist renters dealing with mold in their units.
“This report is one step forward, but the next step is needed,” Casar said in a statement. “The city needs to make it very clear that landlords must remove mold from apartments, or else they’re violating the law. Nowhere else in the state regulates mold, and Austin has an opportunity to lead the way in protecting residents from this serious health concern. My office plans to work with the code department, housing advocates, and renters to make this change as soon as possible."
One fix suggested by the code department could see city funds used to provide renters' insurance to tenants without coverage, given policies' "significant expense" to those on fixed incomes, staff said. Another possibility involved the expansion of Austin's Rental Housing Development Assistance, or RHDA, program and its funding for building projects that could make apartments less vulnerable to unwanted moisture and mold issues.
The code department also said alterations to its inspection and repair guidelines could improve how mold complaints are handled going forward. Recommendations include a switch to a new type of moisture meter for all inspectors—estimated at a total cost of $40,000 that could be spread across several years—and the adoption of new water damage repair guidelines to be developed with the Texas Mold Assessors and Remediation Association.
Water damage training for a handful of the department's top inspectors through the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification was also recommended at an initial cost of $4,000.
The code department’s analysis looked into how other jurisdictions tackle mold issues, and found few examples of mold testing and safety standards or related renter protections at the local, state and national levels. Code staff also found that no large city or smaller municipality examined in the department’s review provides relocation assistance for renters who have mold problems in their apartment requiring rehabilitation work.
Staff said Austin does offer financial assistance and repair services support for eligible homeowners and affordable housing developers in certain cases of safety concerns or emergencies.
The code department said effective next steps would mainly be internal adjustments rather than wholesale changes to city policy.
"Based on these findings, staff does not recommend creating regulations specific to the presence of mold, as there are no standards or levels established to use as a basis for designing such ordinance language. However, there are steps the City of Austin can take to improve our response to mold issues in rental housing," staff wrote.
Further action by the city could include the code department's adjustments, with additional actions potentially spilling over into City Council action for budgeting or building code changes. Casar said his office is continuing to examine the renter protections and policies in place.