Former tenant seeks accountability for water leaks, mold issues in rental home

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Hillary Jones felt frustrated and powerless when multiple water leaks sprang up at her former North Lawrence home. She blames mold for aggravating her children’s asthma and wants accountability within a system she views as once helping her family but ultimately failing it.

Jones moved into the four-bedroom single family rental home in North Lawrence near the end of  2020. She was pregnant and ready to “nest” for the arrival of her fourth child, due in spring 2021. Zion would be born seven weeks prematurely. He was admitted to the hospital’s NICU and stayed there for a month.

Today, Zion is an active, friendly 2-year-old who loves Blippi. He giggles a lot but wheezes sometimes, like many young children born prematurely who have asthma.

Soon after Zion’s second birthday in late February, Jones noticed she barely had enough hot water for a shower. She avoided using multiple appliances at the same time to see if that would fix the problem. It didn’t, so she notified the home’s owner/landlord a few days later. A plumber replaced the pilot light sensor, but it didn’t fix the problem, either.

Then more surprises arrived for Jones in March.

Water mysteriously appeared on the first-floor hallway’s laminate flooring and carpet in Zion’s bedroom. A monthly water bill dated March 7 came in at $421 and charged Jones for more than 33,000 gallons of water. For perspective, a family of four’s estimated water usage is about 8,000 gallons per month.

Just as Jones started to get a handle on these challenges, she received notice from the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority that her portion of the subsidized rent payment would increase May 1 to $1,435 a month from $581 due to an eligibility recertification. The stress was piling up.

A plumber hired by Jones’ then-landlord discovered leaking pipes March 8 inside the wall between Zion’s room and the bathroom next door. When Jones removed Zion’s furniture from the room, she saw dark spots on the carpet underneath. Bottom layers of the crib, changing table and dresser had begun to peel and rot. Within two days of the leak’s discovery, the smell from Zion’s bedroom grew overwhelming, Jones said. She complained to the landlord about the wet carpet and pad. The landlord had them removed and discarded.

“That room smelled like soccer cleats when they pulled it up,” Jones said.

The landlord hired a private restoration company in mid-March to clean and remediate Zion’s room. Baseboards pulled off revealed what appeared to be mold below, Jones said.

Portions of the affected walls and trim were repainted and replaced, but wooden carpet tack strips underneath the carpet and pad during the flooding remained in place. Jones said she grew skeptical about the home’s air quality and the cleaning process.

Contributed A carpet tack strip, center, separates the concrete floor in Zion’s bedroom on the left from the hallway’s laminate flooring on the right.

Jones saw the dark dots on the strips — next to hundreds of sharp, exposed tacks — as a dangerous combination for her family, especially Zion and his older sister, Kennedi.

At age 5, Kennedi also contends with asthma. Jones questioned whether “corners had been cut” to save money.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Kennedi, 5, holds up her camera.

Meanwhile, Zion’s asthma worsened — beyond a typical seasonal flare, according to Jones. She blamed the most recent water leak for aggravating the toddler’s asthma but questioned whether previous water leaks in 2022 could have jumpstarted Zion’s latest breathing challenges.

Zion’s medical team prescribed multiple medications and daily nebulizer breathing treatments to address his breathing troubles in June, October and December 2022, and again in March, according to medical records provided by Jones. In addition to asthma flare-ups, Zion was diagnosed with acute bronchitis in October 2022 and again in March.

But even after the leaking pipes inside the wall were repaired this spring, wet spots randomly appeared on the bedroom carpet of two additional bedrooms. The entryway and living room then morphed into Jones’ and Zion’s new sleeping quarters and a landing spot for most of the toddler’s furniture and toys.

Water still seeped up through the hallway’s laminate floor after repairs were made and was observed March 31 during the first of three visits to the home by a Lawrence Times reporter. Evidence of leaks eventually were confirmed inside both of the home’s toilets, under a bathroom sink, and in three of the home’s four bedrooms.

The possibility of mold propagating throughout the home, coupled with numerous visits from unfamiliar repair personnel, made Jones’ anxiety spiral and triggered past traumas, she said. Jones previously served in the U.S. Navy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma and major depressive disorder.

Jones paid for intermittent hotel stays in March and April. She also hired a plumber to search for water leaks and multiple companies to perform mold testing and air quality tests.

Ultimately, lab testing on two carpet tack strips in April confirmed the presence of aspergillus, penicillium and cladosporium, all of which are considered common molds.

Most strains of aspergillus are not harmful to those with healthy immune systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“However, for people who have weakened immune systems, breathing in Aspergillus spores can cause an infection in the lungs or sinuses which can spread to other parts of the body,” according to the CDC’s website.

The Mayo Clinic recommends those with asthma avoid breathing in aspergillus spores, which can trigger an allergic reaction. Same with penicillium and cladosporium.

“If you have a mold allergy and asthma, your asthma symptoms can be triggered by exposure to mold spores,” according to the Mayo website. “In some people, exposure to certain molds can cause a severe asthma attack.”

Jones described the home as “uninhabitable” the last two months she lived there. Records Jones provided show she sought help from various government and nonprofit organizations throughout March and April. She reached out to Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, the City of Lawrence Code Compliance and Finance Departments, and community resource organizations such as the Willow Domestic Violence Center, the Ballard Center, and Housing and Credit Counseling Inc.

Jones said she felt fortunate to receive financial assistance from the Ballard Center, the Willow and multiple nonprofit veterans organizations. They helped pay the exorbitant water costs, the family’s moving expenses and a portion of the environmental testing fees. A drive to replace items lost by Jones and her family was also coordinated by Raintree Montessori PTAO and Friends of Raintree, where Kennedi attends school on a scholarship.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Hillary Jones

LDCHA special inspections

After weeks of sleeping in her living room with a toddler and not knowing where else to turn, Jones said she asked LDCHA to perform a special inspection.

“I believe that I have the right to live in a habitable and livable environment and it is not a privilege,” Jones wrote in a pre-inspection email to LDCHA staff.

On April 17, an LDCHA staff member, the home’s owner/landlord, and a City of Lawrence code compliance staff member toured the home with Jones and an advocate from the Willow.

A copy of the LDCHA inspection report showed damp carpet in an upstairs bedroom and a “possible leak in the roof/guttering.” For the bedroom below, inspector Michele Boone wrote, “Evidence of a leak was present on the left and right walls” and carpet was “slightly stained in left rear corner.” The room’s report concluded with, “(Landlord) has scheduled roofing and leak detection services.”

LDCHA’s special inspection report reflected no information on the remaining two bedrooms, including Zion’s bedroom — which was still just a concrete floor with hairline cracks, residual glue and wooden carpet tack strips — six weeks post-leak. A summary decision on the unit’s report read, “(Landlord) is addressing all issues in a timely manner; reliant on contractors schedules.”

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times A bedroom in Hillary Jones’ former rental home is shown on April 28, 2023. Carpet tack strips line the border of the room.

Shannon Oury, executive director for LDCHA, said any active water leak in a Section 8 rental unit would violate Housing Quality Standards (HQS) for public housing.

“Basically, our perspective … when we’re asked to come do a special inspection, if we were to see active water leaks, we would say to the landlord, ‘Hey, you have to address this, because that is covered in HQS,’” Oury said.

Oury recommended housing voucher tenants not wait to contact the housing authority if they see or suspect a water leak.

“Call us immediately, right?” Oury said. “If your roof is leaking or you’ve got a leak and you call the landlord and they don’t respond, then call us and ask for the special inspection. We’ll come.”

The day after the special inspection, Jones’ then-landlord agreed to end the lease eight months early at Jones’ request. April 18 was also the day a plumber removed one of the home’s two toilets due to an internal leak and a previous recommendation to move the toilet further from the wall. A boxed replacement toilet sat in the hallway outside the bathroom, but it had not yet been installed by April 30 when the family moved out, although work to prepare the toilet’s new spot had been completed April 27. Carpet installation for Zion’s former bedroom was scheduled for May 2, according to Jones.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times The corner of a downstairs bathroom in Hillary Jones’ former rental, prepped for a toilet installation.

Oury said she thought the process had worked, although the timeline might have been longer than the tenant had hoped.

“We have to give the landlord time, and from our perspective, to fix the things,” Oury said. “They were within the time that we allowed.”

Oury said special inspections are scheduled as soon as possible after a request. If an inspection reveals “serious conditions posing a threat to the safety of the household,” they must be corrected within 24 hours. Other deficiencies that cause a unit to fail will be allowed 14 days for repairs unless an owner requests a waiver for more time to correct the problems.

“She did the right thing,” Oury said, referring to Jones. “She called us and she called the city and we came and we were provided documentation that the landlord was addressing these and within the time — we have a 14-day situation where we follow up — and before that elapsed, there was a mutual agreement to end the lease. And so I do think it was working. I think perhaps maybe the call to us and/or the city wasn’t made until after the problem had been going on awhile.”

From Jones’ perspective, however, a housing system that had supported her and her family for years eventually let her down. She said she had reached out to several LDCHA employees by mid-March for support but almost immediately felt pressured to end the lease rather than address the problems with the home. Jones said after the special inspection she felt she needed to remove her children from the environment, thus ending the lease and her relationship with LDCHA.

When asked about the timeline during a follow-up email, Oury said LDCHA records showed Jones declined the agency’s offer for an earlier special inspection.

“I will state our record(s) show that on March 28, Hillary called our inspector to report this issue and on April 4 declined a special inspection when it was offered, stating the landlord was being responsive to the issues,” Oury wrote. “As you know a special inspection was later scheduled for April 17.”

After moving out, Jones’ daughter Ivori, 17, said her anger had lessened, but she still felt frustration about the home’s condition during the family’s last two months there and its effect on her family’s health.

In addition to Zion’s breathing problems, Ivori felt frustrated to see her brother’s sleep schedule turned upside down and for the downstairs toilet to be removed while Zion was in the middle of potty training. Ivori directed her frustration toward the home’s owner/landlord, Fanta Christy.

“You would think if there are things going wrong in the house that people are paying to live in, you would think that you would fix them, that people can live better,” Ivori said.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times Hillary Jones’ daughter Ivori and son Zion

Douglas County property records show Fanta and William Christy also own the home next door and another behind it. The third home is listed on a home day care license due to expire Sept. 30, according to Kansas Department of Health and Environment records. In May, the home had been listed for sale.

Before publication time, Fanta Christy did not provide answers to a list of questions sent June 5 via email and text by a Lawrence Times reporter. Christy did return a phone call, but the conversation was brief. Christy said she wanted to speak with Jones’ attorney before she commented further but did mention the issue of mold in Jones’ former home.

“We fixed it already. And there was only 4 inches of mold,” Christy said without elaborating on what specific measurement she was referring to.

Jones said she didn’t want the issues she dealt with pushed “under the rug” and wanted to share her story in case it might help others, especially families and those with health conditions.

Moving out of the North Lawrence home brought a sense of relief, Jones said, and for the first time in months she woke up in early May without feeling pain in her chest from anxiety and stress. She said after the move, Zion stopped needing daily nebulizer treatments.

Jones said she didn’t think her former landlord had made “a good faith effort” to address the problems in a timely manner, especially as they affected her family’s health and quality of life. Renters deserve better and they have rights, she said.

“I feel like the due diligence both on the housing side, on her side has not been present like it should be,” Jones said. “And like I said at the inspection, just because I’m on Section 8 and I have a voucher and I’m a disabled veteran does not make me illiterate or incompetent. And that’s another thing I said — just valuing somebody’s health and welfare. I mean, I have not gone to this extent to just prove a point to move out. I’ve gone to this extent because not only has it affected my mental health, but I have two little children.”

‘Any material that we have, if we add water to it, mold will grow’

Allergy testing in late March on Zion and Kennedi did not indicate mold allergies. Still, indoor mold should be remediated and avoided, according to local experts who’ve each worked in their respective fields more than 20 years. All agreed to speak on the subject of mold in general; none of them visited Jones’ former home or participated in its cleanup.

Aron Cromwell, CEO and owner of Cromwell Environmental, said within 24 to 48 hours of a water event, mold can start growing.

“So taking care of it quickly is the ultimate answer to not deploying the problem,” he said.

Cromwell said if you think you see mold growing on a wall, avoid blowing a fan on it. The only true way to confirm that it’s mold is through sample lab testing.

“You do want to dry it out, but you’ve got to be very careful if mold is already growing,” he said. 

If you only experienced a water event that just occurred, “get all the fans in the world and start drying it out,” Cromwell said. “If it’s been sitting there for a while and there’s already mold growing on it, that’s when you’re just gonna absolutely need to get somebody in to do a professional mold remediation. We’re talking about a sizable area.”

After everything is cleaned, disinfected and replaced if necessary, Cromwell said he recommended air-quality testing to confirm the process was successful.

“Any material that we have, if we add water to it, mold will grow,” Cromwell said. “That should not happen indoors. It’s bad for us, but it can be dealt with and it’s not like it’s the end of the world, but for health it’s important that we aren’t breathing in mold spores in our indoor environment.”

Katie Burnham, environmental consultant with Hernly Environmental, said mold spores are in the air, everywhere, all the time, but mold must have a food source and a moisture source to grow.

Sources’ opinions varied on whether the carpet tack strips that tested positive for mold from Jones’ former home could later pose a threat without a water source.

Cromwell said it might be reasonable to leave something like carpet tack strips in place during a remediation because they’re often “a pain to remove,” but it also might be difficult to “get a real good clean on an area with tack strips” in place. If a mold presence were confirmed through testing, Cromwell recommended getting rid of them.

“If there’s mold growing on something … you need to pull that up and get rid of it under a controlled condition,” Cromwell said.

He recommended not leaving unclean items in place that have tested positive for mold even if the item has dried because mold spores can immediately become airborne after molds dry out. There are exceptions, he said, but mold spores operate much like a powder or seeds waiting for a water event. He illustrated how easily mold spores can spread using a flour analogy.

“If you’ve got flour that’s dry on the counter, and if air comes along it can easily get in the air, but if it’s wet it doesn’t so easily get into the air,” Cromwell said.

Joni Hernly, owner of Hernly Environmental Inc., referred to mold issues as “complicated.” She said most governmental entities have avoided addressing mold specifically, because it’s “such a tricky thing, because there’s so many types of mold.”

“The federal government has never set a standard or a limit — like how much mold is harmful versus OK,” Hernly said.

The key, Hernly said, is having less mold indoors than outdoors. When it comes to how someone will react to the presence of mold, it just depends on the individual.

“A person with asthma and allergies is probably going to be affected more by mold than a person without those, and it does depend on the type of mold, it depends on how much. There’s lots of factors that go into that,” Hernly said. “So that’s why I don’t know that you’re going to find anywhere that has a mold ordinance or a mold requirement or whatever.”

City of Lawrence code compliance inspections

Mold isn’t specifically addressed in Lawrence City Code, but on interior surfaces it’s treated as an unsanitary condition, according to Brian Jimenez, code official and assistant director of planning and development services.

“So obviously, I think any reasonable person would say if you have mold growing on a surface inside your home, that’s not a sanitary condition,” Jimenez said, based on the department’s interpretation of the code.

The city responds to mold complaints from tenants, but it won’t conduct air quality testing or open up walls, according to Jimenez. Staff will perform visual inspections and treat anything appearing to be mold as such without testing it.

“If we see mold on surfaces, then we tell the property owner, or the property agent, or both depending on the situation, that we need to remediate that,” Jimenez said.

Staff would then attempt to identify the source of the moisture based on a visual inspection. Leaks related to roofing, appliances and internal plumbing are common culprits, he said.

Depending on the size of the area, code enforcement staff could require it be cleaned with soap and water or bleach water, then sprayed with a sealant after the spot has had time to thoroughly dry out. With large areas of mold, sheetrock might need to be removed, replaced and repainted, according to Jimenez. In cases involving large surfaces, a mold remediation company might be needed. Either way, staff would later follow up for compliance, he said.

“We try to be reasonable and fair since there are no defined state laws, federal laws,” Jimenez said. “That’s how we’ve treated these types of cases over the last number of years, and I think it’s fair to say that the end result is usually one of reason and practicality, and our goal is to get rid of, without testing it, what appears to look like, to be mold.”

Whether a rental property is up for a periodic rental inspection or a tenant has complained about an issue, Jimenez said city inspectors give landlords an opportunity to correct a problem first. They also provide an avenue for appeal. Mold complaints are consistently received year after year, but suspending/revoking a rental license or filing a complaint against a landlord through municipal court remains a last resort, Jimenez said.

“Mold cases very rarely get to that point where we would have to prosecute someone,” said Jimenez, who has worked in Lawrence code enforcement since 2002.

Additionally, most mold complaints investigated by city staff stem from water leaks, Jimenez said. A tenant’s behaviors rarely create mold growth, but it happens. He provided an example.

“A very tight apartment that no fresh air comes through and a tenant has a lot of plants, has a high humidity,” Jimenez said. “So humidity is a key factor too. You don’t necessarily have to have a water source that’s traceable. You can just have the high humidity, cramped spaces behind couches and furniture. We’ve seen that happen as well.”

For more information about mold remediation, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website at this link.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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