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Renters in Dickinson upset over possible mold in their units

A cough turned into a headache. A headache turned into wheezing. Wheezing turned into doctor visits. Now, one Dickinson couple says their long list of ailments may be directly related to mold they believe they have lived in for years. Tara and Wi...

Wilbur and Tara Hanel look over the documentation they have kept for the mold they claim was in their rental unit. (Press Photo by Kalsey Stults)
Wilbur and Tara Hanel look over the documentation they have kept for the mold they claim was in their rental unit. (Press Photo by Kalsey Stults)

A cough turned into a headache. A headache turned into wheezing. Wheezing turned into doctor visits.

Now, one Dickinson couple says their long list of ailments may be directly related to mold they believe they have lived in for years.

Tara and Wilbur Hanel claim that while living in a property managed by MetroPlains Management, any efforts to correct the mold issues in their apartment went unattended. The company, however, claims that they did everything they were required to do.

"It's so frustrating," Tara said. "We don't want anyone else getting sick."

Kevin Pavlish, the Southwestern District Health Unit's environmental health practitioner, said with the lack of standards across the state and in Dickinson, there isn't much he can do to provide help to people facing mold problems in rental situations.

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"In the absence of any regulations, locally anyway, it ends up being a private legal matter between the tenant and the landlord, which is a road you don't want to go down," he said. "But sometimes that is the only recourse they may have."

Mold by the many

The Hanels are not the only people who claim to have illnesses associated with mold in their rental unit.

Pavlish said, on average, he hears from one to two people a month who believe they have mold in their building.

Karie Kulish claims she was evicted after telling her landlord there was mold issues in her Dickinson rental house. She said she had upper respiratory problems while she stayed there.

Nettier Splichal said she lived in a mold environment for just three months but claims to have had serious health issues stemming from what the doctor believes could be mold-related. Splichal said she lost 30 pounds and developed asthma during her short time in that environment.

Angie Neitzke Literal believes her severe sinus problems are the result of living in a rental with mold and has taken steps to move out. She said her landlord knew of the mold issues and told her to paint over it.

Literal said she has seen more specialists in the year she lived there than she ever thought she would.

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Darla Saine-Reed said her rental apartment had mold in the bathroom while they lived there-one of the most common places for mold to grow-and her son had a chronic cough while living there. She said her son's cough cleared up about four months later after moving out.

Symptoms that can be associated with mold include respiratory problems, wheezing, difficulty breathing, nasal and sinus congestion, dry or hacking cough, sore throat, nose and throat irritation, shortness of breath, skin irritation, aches, pain and fever.

The Hanels said they visited health professionals in Dickinson, who told them their long list of symptoms could be attributed to mold.

Seeking guidance

The Hanels say that they went through every avenue they knew to try to get answers and results on the mold they claimed was taking over their apartment.

The first place they contacted was the Southwestern District Health Unit.

Pavlish said he wishes he could be involved in making city regulations because he has cases of people complaining about their living situations related to rentals.

"I would like to see that there is a little more accountability on the landlord's side if they are allowing properties like this to be rented, knowing that there are structural or health issues within that apartment or space," he said.

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The Hanels have a running list of phone calls to officials locally and across the state and say their attempts to reach out either went unanswered or were given "the runaround." They also said that assistance from management was lacking and made at least nine unanswered phone calls to the corporate office.

Tim Forester worked maintenance in the building the Hanels lived in and said while he worked there, he felt like the issues were never addressed.

"I can even remember sometimes when somebody would move out of those three-plexes you'd look in the corners, like in the closet or the entryway, and you could see mold in the corners," he remembers.

Forester said he was told to get "a gallon of bleach, and mix in some bleach and water into a spray bottle and spray it. That would usually wipe off the surface mold and then we would paint it to make it look good for the next resident coming in."

Elizabeth Mertes, regional manager for MetroPlains, refutes claims made by the Hanels and Forester that there is mold in their units.

"I've been in and out of that property very frequently," she said. "We have not had any leaks. I've been in North Dakota for three years and we have not had any signs of moisture intrusion. We haven't had any leaks. We have inspected the crawl space, and I have pictures of the crawl space that shows that it is dry."

She said the company follows strict protocol in instances like the ones the Hanels are claiming.

"If anyone says anything to us that they are concerned about mold, we are going to respond within 24 hours," Mertes said. "We are going to get out there and do a full inspection. We bring a moisture reader. We bring the people who are certified. We are going to check all of the plumbing. We're going to check the baseboards. We're going to check the drywall."

She said after doing all of those inspections at the Hanels' unit, everything came back with perfect readings.

Pavlish said the only way for a definitive answer as to whether or not there is mold is to have an air test administered. The closest place that does that kind of testing is in Bismarck and Pavlish said it can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

The Hanels were unsatisfied with that assessment and bought a mold testing kit from Menards and sent it to Florida-based ProLab, which offers mold testing services.

The results came back with three types of mold found in their apartment: alternaria, drechslera and cladosporium. ProLab, however, said all of those molds were within a normal range.

Mertes said she didn't feel it was necessary at the time to contract a company out of Bismarck to have testing done on the unit because of the intense amount of inspections the property goes through since it is legally funded.

She said it has had at least five inspections in the last 18 months, but it might be necessary to undergo an air test for mold and incur the cost to "dispel any rumors."

"MetroPlains has been here in this community for like 40 years, and I would hate to see something get out of control where our name is getting dragged through the mud," she said.

Bringing regulations to Dickinson

There are no regulations on what a safe level of mold is currently in the state, which means people are usually stuck in a situation where they are battling health issues or are going through the legal process to get out of their lease.

Dickinson building official Leonard Schwindt said he hopes to bring a rental inspection program to Dickinson that other cities in the state have so landlords are held more responsible to maintain properties.

"This would be one of those topics to make sure we have safe environments for rental properties," he said.

Grand Forks has a similar program where all rental units-any dwelling containing a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping facilities, and having any portion of the housing unit occupied by someone other than the owner of the property or their family-is inspected every five years or when complaints or concerns are reported.

Units after inspection are given 30 days to be brought up to standards and will then be re-inspected. If it is refused, the city will take legal action against the property owner.

The program has been running for 40 years and Schwindt said he has been learning from other cities about what programs they have that could be put into place in Dickinson.

"This needs to be addressed," Schwindt said. "We have been talking about it for at the least the past six months. My timeline would be to present it at the first of the year. That's my goal."

Pavlish said he encourages people to seek legal counsel if they feel like they are in a rental that is unfit.

"There is a set of regulations within the attorney general's office that deals with landlord and tenant rights," he said. "Within that section, there is a clause or line that basically says that the landlord has to provide an environment that is fit and habitable."

Forester said while he was working maintenance, he became most concerned with the lack of knowledge about mold.

"The thing that bothers me the most about the whole thing is you know we take care of lead-based paint issues. Back in the day, we had to go through that whole procedure," he said. "Then we had radon and that was a whole other thing. But nobody ever talks about mold."

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Black spores are seen underneath the flooring of Angie Neitzke Literal's rental in Dickinson. (Press Photo by Kalsey Stults)

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