AUSTIN (KXAN) — Joni Mason has spent the last few weeks trying to figure out how to navigate an unfortunate discovery in her north Austin apartment — mold.

“Four tests have been done in here and only one came back ‘no mold,'” Mason said, standing outside of her apartment, which she has moved most of her furniture and clothes out of.

Mason said her apartment complex offered to move her to a new unit, but that one tested positive for dangerous mold too. The complex then offered Mason a release from her lease, she said. KXAN was unable to get in touch with the apartment’s ownership.

Joni Mason stands outside of her north Austin apartment
Joni Mason stands outside of her north Austin apartment, which she said tested positive for mold (KXAN photo/Grace Reader)

So what do you do if you rent and suspect you have mold? We took that question to Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA) Austin. Shoshana Krieger, a project director, said people should start by sending a written request for maintenance to a landlord or building manager.

“I would be sure to include not just that mold is present but what are the underlying building conditions that are contributing to mold,” she added. That could include a leak, problems with your HVAC system or dampness on walls or surfaces.

The next step is to call 311. Krieger recommends you do, so the City of Austin can better track mold calls. The city may be able to send Austin Code out to your residence to look for violations.

What the City of Austin can do

After the February 2021 winter storm, Austin City Council directed city staff to come back to them with ways to improve health and safety tied to mold in rental housing. During that storm, many people had busted pipes which later created soggy conditions conducive to mold.

While the city staff later said there were “no established best practice[s] for designing ordinances or laws specific to the presence of mold,” they did recommend five improvements to city council:

  • Increase access to renters’ insurance
  • Provide additional funding through the Rental Housing Development Assistance program
  • Improve inspection practices in rental housing
  • Establish repair guidelines for water damage
  • Educate folks on using licensed mold assessors and remediators

Right now, according to that report, the Austin Code Department responds to complaints of mold in rental housing and is asked to identify sources of “water intrusion.” The department cannot test for mold, or cite for it, but does identify “mold-like substances” and can cite for underlying conditions, like a water leak.

If the inspector finds an owner of a property has violated city code, they can send a notice of violation. Beyond that, legal action is required.

You can read the 2021 report from the City of Austin here.

While Mason said she paid more than $2,000 out-of-pocket to test for mold in her apartment, BASTA recommends reaching out for a free legal consult before doing at-home testing.

“We would encourage folks to reach out, get legal advice. There’s free legal services available — Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Volunteer Legal Services — to get an assessment of is this something which you really want to be investing in,” Krieger said.

You can find more resources for collecting evidence and sending a formal request to your landlord on the BASTA Austin website.