Describing Rodent, Mold and Roach Infestations, Renters Support Early Lease Termination Proposal

Describing Rodent, Mold and Roach Infestations, Renters Support Early Lease Termination Proposal

County Council reviews bill that would expand tenants' rights

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Speakers testify in favor of a bill that would allow renters to end their leases early under certain circumstances.

Photo courtesy of Tom Hucker

Jose Albarracin said his family lived in “unhealthy and unsafe living conditions” for a half-decade in Silver Spring, taking several trips to doctors and emergency rooms for mold exposure because they were not allowed to break their lease.

Over seven years, Albarracin’s family lived in three units at the Enclave apartments hoping to escape persistent mold, roaches, mice and crime, but in each apartment he and his children exhibited severe symptoms of mold inhalation, he said.

When he investigated the cause of his asthma-like symptoms,  Albarracin said he discovered liquid under the apartment’s heating and air conditioning system that was leaking into walls and under carpet. Mold was growing inside the  system and was spread throughout the unit every time it was turned on, Albarracin said.

When his family’s symptoms did not improve despite attempted remediation, Albararcin said he tried to break his lease, but managers would not allow him to end the contract early.

“Finally, I said to management, ‘I’m leaving, even if you don’t let us off the lease.’ I had to take care of my family and take my children out of such severe conditions,’” Albararcin said.

Albarracin’s story was presented during a County Council public hearing on Tuesday on proposed legislation that would allow tenants to break their leases if their landlords fail to correct unsafe conditions, such as mold, rodent and roach infestations, within 30 days after being ordered to do so by county inspectors.

The legislation, drafted by council member Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring, was introduced following recent inspections of the Enclave apartments that uncovered more than 2,600 housing code violations. About 15 percent of the violations were considered health and safety issues.

Earlier this month, the county released a “troubled properties list” that targets rental complexes with persistent, serious violations. Developments on the list will be required to have at least an annual inspection to ensure safety of tenants. The Enclave apartments, along with nearly 100 other properties, are on the  list.

Representatives from Enclave’s management company, The Donaldson Group, were not present at Tuesday’s meeting and a representative referred to a previous statement in which the company said it was taking immediate action to remedy issues at the Silver Spring apartments. The Donaldson Group took over management of the property a year ago “with the direct purpose” of remedying longstanding issues, according to the statement.

Rachel Tate, a teacher at Burnt Mills Elementary School, said some of her students live at the Enclave and come to school ill. She said the students often opted to go to school sick, rather than stay home in unhealthy conditions.

Tate said she supports the bill because such living conditions impact students’ ability to learn and her ability to effectively teach.

“A child is not available for learning if they are consistently sick, so that impacts test scores … and their ability to learn how to read,” Tate said. “No matter how much effort I put into it, if they are sick, there is nothing I can do in order to help them.”

Housing advocates pointed to similar conditions in other areas of the county, with Marcus Meeks, on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland, saying through his work he has seen apartments so infested with bed bugs, despite frequent cleaning, that young children were unable to sleep at night and had scars.

“Many landlords care greatly about their tenants, but some don’t and those who do not care create unhealthy and unsafe living conditions,” Meeks said. “I enthusiastically support this bill because I’ve seen firsthand poor living conditions and a demonstrated need to improve the housing for many of our residents.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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