Dial M for Mold!

Black fungus triumphs over tenants at Costa Mesa apartment complex

Alex Naidovich has lived at the gated Camden Sea Palms condominiums in Costa Mesa for the past eight years. Earlier this spring, his 63-year-old mother began suffering coughing fits at night. Naidovich alerted management, and they quickly found the culprit in his bathroom: stachybotryschatarum, better known as black mold. Management said they would take care of it, but Naidovich's mom is coughing again—the black mold is back.

In April, Naidovich told his neighbor, Juan Mesta, about the mold. Mesta wasn't surprised. For the past year, mold has infested his unit, mostly in the kitchen and in the bedroom that his eight-year-old son and infant daughter share. Camden management replaced a windowsill and proclaimed the problem over. But mold is still bubbling on Mesta's kitchen ceiling.

The two then talked to Deverick Mack, a five-year tenant at Camden. Mack has moved with his wife from hotel to hotel since late January, when they left their Camden condo after their eyes became red and skin inflamed—thanks, they allege, to mold in their living room. Camden also promised to remedy their mold problem. The mold is still there.

Mack, Mesta and Naidovich have spoken to other Camden residents and discovered many have weathered mold outbreaks in their condos since the heavy rains in January. Their demand to Camden officials is simple: stop the mold. But according to multiple tenants interviewed by the Weekly, management has made only limited repairs to their units—when they bothered to respond to complaints at all.

"All our concerns have been met with either silence or snippy responses," Mack said.

A recent visit to the Camden Sea Palms, an oasis of middle-class tranquility in Costa Mesa's rough Westside, confirmed tenants' allegations that the place is a mold farm. Some units featured only the first splotchy dots of mold on walls. In others, residents stuck wads of tissue paper on the corners of windows in an unsuccessful effort to stop the mold's spread. Mold was in bathrooms, in living rooms, above cribs, near bunk beds.

Calls to the managers of the Camden Sea Palms were not returned.

This organization isn't the first to encounter silence from management, whose parent company, the Houston-based Camden Property Trust, operates nearly 66,500 apartment units across the country and reported revenues of $433 million last year. On Feb. 7, the Orange County Health Care Agency sent a letter to Camden Sea Palms manager Ashley Hancock, warning her to "take immediate action to correct this condition" after Mack complained to the HCA. Failure to do so, according to the HCA's letter, would violate the Uniform Housing Code and subject Camden to fines. But there is no record in documents obtained by the Weeklythat Camden responded to the HCA's request or that an HCA inspector ever investigated Camden units. HCA officials refused to discuss anything not included in the documents, citing privacy concerns.

In any case, HCA's power is limited. According to its website, the agency's only recourse is to "take tenant complaints" and send out an informational packet on mold.

Meanwhile, Mack called the Costa Mesa Code Enforcement agency, which declined to investigate, calling it a "civil" matter. Finally, Mack hired V. Anthony Thompson, a FEMA Certified Risk Analyst, to assess his unit's mold damage. On Jan. 29, Thompson and a State Farm Insurance agent inspected Mack's apartment and found that the crew hired by Camden to repair Mack's unit was not certified by the state of California to remove mold and, not surprisingly, that the repairs had failed to fix the problem.

In a Feb. 18 letter to Camden's attorneys, Thompson demanded that Camden officials provide him with a copy of their mold assessment report. Camden never responded. In letters and telephone calls, Thompson kept asking for the report until March 3. That's when Mack learned via a call from a Camden manager that the company was trying to break his lease agreement.

"They said they didn't want me back," Mack claims. "No other explanation."

"Mr. Mack and [his wife] have done nothing to breach the Agreement," Thompson wrote to Camden's lawyers. "One can only speculate, darkly, as to the motive of your client to seize this opportunity to engage in these reprehensible business practices."

Mack doesn't know why Camden management will no longer return his calls, even though he's paid rent on his property since leaving it in January. "They may fear if they respond to one, it would be an acknowledgement there is a problem, and it could be a can of worms that could be crippling to their bottom line," Mack says.

Mack doesn't miss the mold, but he does miss his apartment, especially the ocean view from his window and the cool ocean breezes. He hopes Camden calls him back and does something—or that county or city health officials force them to get rid of the mold. He says he can't understand why both the HCA and Costa Mesa code enforcement department have refused to help him and other Camden residents.

"I don't want to retaliate against Camden or get them shut down," he insists. "We like our place—we've been there five years. We just want to go back home."

NEED MORE INFORMATION? EMAIL CPALM_MOLD@YAHOO.COM.


GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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