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Part I - Wilmington Housing Authority's mold disaster: chronic mismanagement, soaring costs, and hundreds displaced

Pods and dumpsters in Creekwood.jpg
Ben Schachtman
By late October, PODS storage units and dumpsters were visible everywhere in the Creekwood neighborhood -- evidence of a growing mold problem.

In this investigative series, WHQR details the crisis gripping the Wilmington Housing Authority. Mold issues dating back to Hurricane Florence in 2018 were ignored for years and, now, nearly 80 families have been displaced. Costs just to keep those families afloat are soaring, and the authority is unable to keep up with the remediation work — and that's just for the units they know about. On top of that, WHA's administration has been gutted by resignations and restructuring. It's a disaster, and Wilmington families are paying the cost.

This is Part 1 of an investigative series on mold problems in the Wilmington Housing Authority. You can find the rest of the series as it publishes here.

Sonya Muldrow
Ben Schachtman
Sonya Muldrow shows off some garlic grown in her community garden beds in Creekwood. She doesn't have much time to tend them, now that she's living in a hotel away from her apartment.

Sonya Muldrow has lived in Creekwood for 9 years, but she grew up there too. After her mother got divorced, she moved in as a teenager. The public housing development is her community, and she’s planted down roots: including a couple of community garden beds in her back yard.

“This is like a classroom,” she says of the beds. They were built with a community grant from the Arboretum, where Muldrow became a master gardener a few years ago. But now, all that work is threatened by a growing infestation that has forced Muldrow from her home, and may force her to say goodbye to Creekwood forever.

Mold has infected apartments in the Wilmington Housing Authority’s care since Hurricane Florence in 2018, and yet little was done to systematically address the problem for years. Now, scores of families are living in hotels while WHA is still moving slowly to clean up the mess.

Muldrow is just one of 78 families currently living in hotels or corporate apartments while they wait for their homes to be cleaned of mold. Some of them have been there for months.

They come from numerous housing projects: Houston Moore, Creekwood, and Woodbridge, among others. And they’ve been stuck living in hotels far from their communities, wherever WHA can stash them. Likewise, their worldly belongings have been stuffed in PODS, without climate control, or in storage facilities around the city.

Sonya Muldrow has lived in a 1200-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment in Creekwood for nine years. She got sober there, and has become one of the leaders of the community, including a role in Creekwood's resident board. But for the past month she’s been living in a Holiday Inn on Market Street, and worrying about when she might get to live somewhere more stable.

“My mind is like racing. It's just so much, because it's messing with my mental health,” she said. “We don't know what's going on. We don't know whether we're going to be housed again. They're not telling us anything.”

Muldrow found out there were problems with mold in other apartments through the grapevine, and having seen discoloration around her home, grew concerned. The day she moved in nine years ago, she noticed a dark patch on the ceiling of one closet — but the housing authority only ever went after it with bleach. That’s until earlier this year, when she officially asked the authority to test her apartment for mold.

She showed WHQR emails that give a clear timeline: After getting her apartment tested for mold on April 12, the testing company, Phoenix Enviro Corp, sent a mold report detailing the infestation to WHA on May 21 of this year.

Email chain - May to October - Sonya Muldrow.JPG

WHA didn’t act on the information until October 14, and then only gave her a day’s notice to move out.

“They call me on a Thursday and they wanted me packing Friday,” Muldrow said, voice filled with anger. “Yeah, that quick.”

Muldrow visits her home most days to pack up her things and visit her dog, Polar. The Chihuahua mix isn’t allowed at her hotel, so he stays alone at her apartment until she or a family member can visit.

Polar, Sonya's dog.JPG
Sonya Muldrow's dog, Polar, can't live with her in her hotel room, so he has to stay alone at the Creekwood apartment at night.

Her apartment is half-packed up, and it smells strongly of mildew. Black spots of mold intrude around her bathtub, and even the tile flooring is marred by orange stripes of mold.

“It's really nasty looking at it,” she said. “If you didn't know me you would think that I was a nasty person.”

No matter how hard she tried to clean up the stripes and spots, Muldrow couldn’t get any of it clean. “I'm scrubbing and I'm scrubbing and I'm thinking this because it's dirty or whatever. But it never comes up.”

Getting rid of the mold will take more than bleach: it will take remediation. That may require the flooring or walls to get pulled out and replaced, along with sealing and sanitization — not to mention addressing the cause of excess moisture in the first place. And it’s an expensive venture.

WHA is understating the financial cost of the problem

WHA Board Chair Al Sharp says it costs an average of $27,000 to remediate an apartment: running the gamut from $8,000 for smaller units with limited issues to over $100,000 for a total renovation of a 4-bedroom apartment. WHA says it's hard to get an accurate figure — but total remediation costs could be in the millions. And that's for the units WHA has already tested. Right now, it's unknown how widespread the mold issue has become.

Housing the displaced residents is expensive too, Sharp says: "We had an estimate that it was roughly $100,000 a month for all of the units: all of the expenses. This does not conclude the reconstruction amounts, they're separate contracts.”

This is almost certainly a drastic underestimate. Even the cost of daily stipends — not the rent of hotels and corporate apartments — is higher than the $100,000 figure Sharp gave.

For example, Muldrow gets $427 each week — $61 a day — as a stipend for staying in a hotel. She calls the checks hush money, but every adult who’s displaced gets the same amount, and there are smaller amounts paid for each child. It’s supposed to help pay for transportation and expenses like food.

Even if they only paid that stipend per family, and not per individual, it would be closer to $150,000 monthly. And, again, that does not include rent on 69 hotel rooms and 9 corporate apartments. So, while the total cost remains unclear — and may even be unclear to WHA — it's certainly several times higher than the 'estimate' Sharp provided.

[Editor's note: Following a November 4 interview, WHA promised to provide more detailed cost figures, but has not yet done so.]

WHA only provided WHQR with the number of displaced families, not individuals. But nearly eighty families could mean hundreds of people who are living cramped in hotel rooms in the midst of a pandemic. In some cases, parents are living with three or four children in just one or two hotel rooms.

A year after learning about the issue, WHA is still moving slowly

It’s an untenable situation, but WHA is not moving quickly to address the problem: for displaced residents, or for those still dealing with mold in their homes.

WHA’s buildings are all old, which makes them vulnerable to mold and mildew. But there’s still no plan to systemically test for mold in every apartment under WHA’s care.

Despite officially knowing about the mold infestation for nearly a year, WHA has only hired one company to work on remediation: Rhino Demolition and Environmental Services Corp. But that one company can’t keep up, and WHA hasn’t hired any additional contractors to help keep pace and get residents back in their homes.

Sharp says WHA has the funding to hire more contractors, and plans to do so. But there still isn’t anything posted about available bids on the WHA website. Sharp says a lot of contractors would rather not work for HUD, citing in part the paperwork that comes with a government bureaucracy. But WHQR called every remediation contractor WHA has worked with or received bids from in the past 4 years, and all who responded said they’d be happy to work with the organization again — but haven’t heard anything about an offer.

WHA doesn't know the extent of the problem

In the meantime, hundreds of residents like Sonya Muldrow are left waiting, and wondering whether their apartments are safe. “My belongings and my possessions are at stake, anybody could break in here,” she says. “I'm in a hotel, I don't know.”

Ben Schachtman
Mold in Sonya Muldrow's apartment is coming up from the flooring, she says. Here, the cracks between linoleum tiles grow yellowish fungus.

Seeing residents like her displaced has had a chilling effect on some residents who believe they have mold, Muldrow said. “Like my neighbor, who doesn’t want to report her problem because she doesn’t want to be put out.”

She says a lot of her neighbors are afraid to complain about the mold. Some have family members staying with them who aren’t on the lease. Others are disabled, and fear being stuck in a hotel for long periods of time. Still others, already in hotels, are afraid to complain publicly in case they lose housing altogether. And while WHA says it would never retaliate, that lack of communication may actually be obscuring parts of the mold crisis the authority isn’t even aware of yet.

That’s because WHA still doesn’t have a systemic method of testing apartments for mold spores — even when an apartment adjoins a moldy unit and shares an HVAC system. Residents have had to advocate for themselves to get their apartments tested. And who would request a mold test if it means getting a day’s notice before having to move out of your home into a hotel?

WHA’s interim director, Vernice Hamilton, was the Human Resources director before taking the helm in the midst of a power vacuum at WHA. She’s been left in charge of a tattered bureaucracy that’s unprepared for the crisis at hand. [Editor's note: More on the dysfunction at WHA, which has contributed to the mold crisis, later this week.]

Hamilton admitted, there isn't a good system in place.

“Prior to this coming up, there was not a policy on testing for mold,” she says. “When it was brought to our attention, that there were issues, then, of course, we had to react and react in a hurry to get the units tested. Because we are, you know, we do want to provide safe environments, a healthy environment for all of our residents.”

There’s also no set system for tracking complaints from residents, which may be why the authority wasn’t aware of this problem until it was a crisis. “This situation lets us know that a lot of things that we need to do going forward, that need to be put in place,” Hamilton says.

There aren’t currently any plans to test every apartment in WHA for mold. Several remediation contractors told WHQR that waiting longer to address the problem makes things worse. The mold spreads, the problem gets deeper and more extensive, until the only remaining option is an expensive gutting of the entire structure.

Ben Schachtman
Sonya Muldrow stands in the doorway of her apartment in Creekwood. She says she's frustrated about how WHA has treated her and her community. "We've got to stand up. We have to meet these people that we elect into office," she says. "They work for us."

Residents have no idea when they'll be able to go home

Meanwhile, Muldrow just wants to return to Creekwood — and the community garden she runs in her backyard.

“It might sound crazy, but like I'm addicted to gardening to the soil, to the earth,” she says. She’s a bit of an environmentalist, and wants to grow healthy food for herself and her community.

Muldrow says she has no idea when she’ll be able to move back into her apartment, or whether she’ll be moved somewhere else instead. WHA has suggested she might be moved to a different community, but she wants to go home to Creekwood. She misses working in her garden each day, and being able to cook using more than a crockpot and her hotel room’s bathroom sink. And she doesn’t want to go to other public housing communities with reputations for drug problems: she worries it could re-spark her latent addiction.

But for Sonya, there’s no end in sight to her hotel stay, and no clear information coming from the top. And she’s not alone. She’s just one of the 78 families stuck in hotels.

Freelance journalist Kevin Maurer and WHQR News Director Ben Schachtman contributed to this reporting. Click here for part 2 of WHQR's serial investigation into mold in the Wilmington Housing Authority.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.