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In Waynesboro, renters and advocates call for better property oversight

The CDC says exposure to moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, including stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes, or skin. Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions.

Some current and former renters in the city of Waynesboro are campaigning for the local government to better regulate landlords and the condition of their properties. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Shawna Cheney has seen plenty of local rental units firsthand. She's the managing attorney at Blue Ridge Legal Service's Lexington office, and works on dozens of eviction cases in Waynesboro each year.

Shawna Cheney, managing attorney at Blue Ridge Legal Service's Lexington office.

SHAWNA CHENEY: Waynesboro is the biggest place I practice, but my observation is that the housing stock is in worse condition … I have definitely been in some apartments that were substandard, and were not safe and habitable … fairly serious mold problems. I've seen plumbing issues … I had one case where the ceiling came in after the tenant had made multiple attempts to get someone to take it seriously and fix it.

Mold was an issue for Nora Scott, who rented an apartment in the Brandon Ladd complex for three years before returning to Nelson County.

Nora Scott rented an apartment in Waynesboro's Brandon Ladd complex for three years before returning to Nelson County.

NORA SCOTT: I made several requests to get the fan in my bathroom fixed because of mold that was coming, appearing on the top of the ceiling. And the first time they sent someone, they didn't fix it, and then just left it. The second time I put in a request, they came, still didn't fix it. The third, it was either the third or the fourth time, they fixed it, but it was an older fan, and it didn't seem to necessarily help.

Scott is now a leader with the Waynesboro chapter of Virginia Organizing, advocating for more oversight of local landlords.

SCOTT: Because of my lack of housing, or my need of housing, I was taken advantage of -- me and my roommates, and several others.

The apartment complex has 20 Google reviews, two of which cite problems with mold and mildew. A property manager told WMRA in an email, [quote] "at this time we are respectfully declining participation and/or comments."

Cheney said mold is a particularly difficult issue to address, because it doesn't fall under the building inspector's purview, like plumbing or electrical wiring does. In fact, she said in Virginia, there's no public entity that will send an inspector out to see if your mold is dangerous, even though the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act requires that both landlords and tenants take responsibility to prevent mold growth.

Virginia Organizing Chapter Leader Philip Sorrells says he experienced problems with his kitchen and other aspects of the two units he rented at Park Station Villa Apartments over a two and a half year period.

Philip Sorrells says he experienced problems with his kitchen and other aspects of the two units he rented at Park Station Villa Apartments in Waynesboro. He's the chapter leader of Virginia Organizing.

PHILIP SORRELLS: No ventilation over the stove, no fire extinguisher, no fan or air conditioning, bad bug infestation, black mold, and rats … and, hell, half of the electrical sockets worked.

He's since moved to Staunton, and said that Waynesboro is a worse place than other localities in the area to be a renter. He said he asked the landlord to address the rodent and mold issues, but nothing was done.

SORRELLS: Nothing. I had to bleach – I had to bleach the wall down.

HAGI: Oh, you had to do that yourself?

SORRELLS: Yeah … I told Crystal, which is the housing lady, I'm like, "hey, I've got to get out of here. That mold's going to kill me."

WMRA contacted Landon Davis III, an attorney with a law firm in Fredericksburg, who is the State Corporation Commission's registered agent for Park Station Villas, LLC. We asked him to identify the apartments’ owners, but he refused, saying that he could not provide it because the property changed hands on November 12th, and the new owner plans to make improvements to the property this spring.

Virginia Organizing Chapter Leader Emily Smarte said she would like to see the city establish a complaint line for tenants whose landlords are not addressing problems, as well as a landlord registry that would require annual property inspections.

EMILY SMARTE: We want to establish some kind of system of accountability, where tenants have somewhere to go with these complaints, to report their landlord for lease violations, to report substandard living conditions. And we want some backup from our local representatives to hold these landlords accountable. Because the way it is right now, like I said, most renters cannot afford to go to court with their landlord. And the landlords know that, and they take advantage of that.

Attorney Shawna Cheney said there is precedent for that kind of oversight elsewhere in Virginia, but it would require the city council to pass an ordinance to set up a rental inspection program that would be housed in the city's building inspection office.

CHENEY: Someone goes every, maybe every two years, every five years, when the property changes hands, and they do an inspection to be sure that all the systems are up to code … Up and down the valley, really, Roanoke is the only city doing it in a major way, and I think it really does protect the tenant.

Waynesboro Mayor Bobby Henderson initially responded to an email request for an interview, but not subsequent emails to try and schedule one.

In lieu of a rental inspection program, Cheney advised tenants who have physical problems with their units to notify their landlords in writing, and make or write a dated copy for their own records. And they can contact Blue Ridge Legal Services for advice if they are concerned their landlord has not remedied the problem within a reasonable amount of time.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.