Jemima Balhas and her young son lived in a rental home with a serious mould problem for seven years, despite pleas from their doctor for them to be rehoused.
She is now fighting for compensation after losing all her belongings due to the risk of contamination.
Lawyers said the case highlighted the need for minimum standards for rental properties to protect people’s health and safety.
Ms Balhas said she first noticed mould spots in 2011, six months after she moved in.
She said a housing officer with her property manager, Aboriginal Housing Victoria (AHV), told her it was due to her weight and was condensation due to heavy breathing.
Eighteen months later, she said the mould had started to grow on her baby son’s bassinette.
“[It had] dots like someone had gone to it with a marker. It was pretty shocking,” Ms Balhas told the ABC.
She said repeated complaints led to a few repairs, but the flaking walls, mould patches, and water stains kept returning.
“I would clean it away, I tried everything, but it would come back thicker,” she said.
Her now five-year-old son Tobias has asthma and bronchiolitis, and when his health deteriorated this year, she got legal advice.
“Him breathing in the air is making his little lungs weaker,” Ms Balhas said. “It’s not fair on him.”
Last month, lawyers acting on Ms Balhas’s behalf took the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
A mould inspection ordered by the tribunal uncovered some inside walls had up to 90 per cent moisture levels — well exceeding the allowable limit of 15 per cent.
The cause was identified as lack of waterproofing in the shower, a possible roof leak and a broken exhaust fan.
“This property is seriously contaminated and not habitable,” the report stated.
“No-one should enter this property [until] a clearance certificate is provided.”
Ms Balhas and her son are now staying in temporary housing at a caravan park in Bairnsdale, in Victoria’s east.
Tobias’s Christmas and birthday presents remain at the house with all their belongings, due to contamination fears.
Doctor’s letters requested urgent rehousing
Dr Jane Greacen said the mouldy conditions left Tobias in danger of developing a fungal pneumonia.
Since 2013, she has written three separate letters to Aboriginal Housing Victoria stating the health risks the mould posed to the boy.
In September, Dr Greacen wrote it was a matter of urgency he be removed from the house.
“Tobias’s asthma with his history of bronchiolitis is being aggravated by living in this house,” Dr Greacen wrote.
“The house is full of mould … it is clearly unsafe for any person living in it.”
Aboriginal Housing Victoria said it did provide a range of assistance to Ms Balhas, including applying a mould treatment, repainting, and the servicing of a heater.
However, AHV said more recently the mould problem had escalated and Ms Balhas and her son would be rehoused. AHV is now investigating the cause of the problem.
“Aboriginal Housing Victoria will pay for the removal and cleaning costs for the furnishings that can be restored,” director of strategy and performance John Templeman told the ABC.
The housing body has offered her $1,000 to replace her soft furnishings and will remediate her electrical appliances.
“These commitments are made on the assumption the water damage is structural and not caused by Ms Balhas,” Mr Templeman said.
Mould is a health hazard
Microbiologist Dr Cameron Jones said mould in buildings was a widespread problem and the serious health risks were not being recognised.
“The first signs of water damage or mould need to be gotten on top of quickly. Mould will quickly grow on any building product that contains a carbon source or a food source,” Dr Jones said.
Dr Jones said dangerous situations arise when the mould was growing unseen in a wall or ceiling, becoming “a toxic hazard”.
Mould can cause respiratory risks in people with asthma or allergies, and long-term health impacts can include chronic inflammatory syndromes in people with poor immune systems.
The ABC showed Dr Jones photographs from inside Ms Balhas’s rental, along with the recent mould report.
“I would be very concerned not just because of the spores that are in the indoor air but from the viable mould, the whole home would be a toxic hazard,” he said.
“It’s negligence permitting anyone to remain in a home with such obvious visible defects.”
He also doesn’t believe the level of water damage could have been caused by the tenant.
“This is years of damage,” he said.
Joel Townsend from Victoria Legal Aid said one of the most common complaints from tenants was about mould, and the default position of most landlords was to blame the tenant.
He said Ms Balhas’s case pointed to the need for minimum standards in all states and territories, to ensure building have proper ventilation and are structurally sound.
Currently, specific minimum standards for rentals exist in only Tasmania and South Australia.
“We are not talking about providing the Taj Mahal. We are talking about providing tenants with that basic minimum set of standards so they can enjoy their property without worrying about the risk to their health and safety,” Mr Townsend said.
“The international experience and so far in Tasmania and South Australia is that it doesn’t reduce housing stock and it doesn’t drive up rent.”
Ms Balhas is expected to be rehoused five days before Christmas.