Q: I rented a house several months ago and signed a one-year lease. The property manager mentioned some past water problems in the unfinished basement, but said the property had been regraded to correct the issue. Since I’ve moved in, the basement has been continually wet, ranging from condensation on the walls, to puddles, to actual standing water. When I pulled some shelving from the wall, I saw the entire area was covered in mold. I am allergic to mold spores. I sprayed mold remover, but the mold keeps returning. I’ve seen my doctor several times about my allergies and sinus infections caused by the mold, and my doctor says I need to move. I’ve notified the landlord of the mold issue, multiple times in writing. The landlord applies mold remover, but it doesn’t have any long-term effect, and the spray adds an irritating odor. What is the likelihood of this constituting a “habitability” issue in Minnesota? I would like to move, but I cannot afford to be sued for the remaining months’ rent. I do not think my landlord will release me without a fight, given the unlikelihood of a quick re-rent on this house.
A: Typically the landlord is responsible for repairing mold or water problems, unless the damage is caused by the tenant’s behavior. Minnesota law requires that a landlord must provide an apartment that is habitable and in reasonable repair and must maintain the rental unit so that it is in compliance with the health and safety codes of the state. If an apartment becomes uninhabitable, the landlord has violated the lease.
You should review the language in your lease to check for an early-termination clause, which would allow you to terminate your lease early, but pay a fee. In your situation, the landlord might waive the fee, due to the mold issue. Lease agreements typically don’t mention mold complaints specifically, but they should include language specifying how maintenance and repair concerns are to be handled. When owners of mold-damaged buildings are unable or unwilling to correct a problem, other organizations may be able to help. Government agencies respond to complaints in rental settings, and there are steps a tenant can take if the landlord fails to make necessary repairs. You can contact the City Inspector or your local public health agency. Either one can send a representative to inspect the property and possibly issue orders for your landlord to make the necessary repairs. There are also private contractors who specialize in inspecting or cleaning mold in homes, so the landlord does have resources for having this mold professionally removed.
Another option is to file a rent escrow action. Since you’ve already sent your landlord a letter detailing the problem, and waited 14 days for it to be resolved, you can now file a rent escrow action. You can get the forms and instructions at your county courthouse. Under Minnesota law, you will be placing your rent owed, along with a written notice of the violation, with the court administrator. In your rent escrow action, you can request that the court terminate your lease early because of your health problems arising from the mold in your rental house.
So, you have a few options: You can contact the City Inspector or a public health agency, who may issue an order for repair. You can go straight to your landlord and work out an agreement, now that you know your options, or you can file a rent escrow action. Whichever solution you choose, remember to keep a copy of the letter, and all correspondence you send to the landlord. Document evidence of your health problems caused by the mold, such as medical bills, doctor’s notes, etc. Take photos of the mold, copy any orders you or your landlord receive from inspectors, and keep any other documents that will help your case.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.