Part II - Ignored for years, tenants' lives are now turned upside down by WHA's mishandling of widespread mold
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 2 of an investigative series on mold problems in the Wilmington Housing Authority. You can find the rest of the series as it publishes here.
A sad irony of the mold crisis is that many Wilmington Housing Authority tenants complained about the issue for years and got little response — and then suddenly, they were required to leave their homes with whiplash speed.
Kimberly Lamberth watched as her sister, Erieka, had to move with her four children — and almost no notice.
“She didn't know until it was to the point where they pretty much had to be evacuated out It was like an immediate move. Like you guys are no longer able to go back inside," she said.
Other residents who spoke to WHQR told similar stories — complaints, long periods of time with no communication from WHA, and then what amounted to overnight instructions to move out into hotels around the city.
WHA had evidence of the mold problem for years, but didn't act
Most tenants point to Hurricane Florence in 2018 as the origin of the mold issues, and there's evidence of a worsening issue by the summer of 2019, including an inspection of the Hillcrest development that showed roughly a third of the units had some mold (a copy of the inspection report, acquired by WHQR, was signed by former CEO Katrina Redmon, who resigned abruptly in August of this year).
Despite that, WHA says it didn’t find out about the crisis until recently — staff say they found out there were serious problems in January of this year, while the authority board found out in June. Al Sharp, chair of the WHA board of commissioners, gave his impression of the situation.
“It just — it just got ahead of the Wilmington Housing Authority last winter. And we heard an anecdote that some residents were aware there were issues but did not want to report it. Because they knew there was no place else to go. They were afraid of being displaced. And so many, they sort of sat on it. And then COVID came in, and it just became a pressure cooker...boiling," he said.
Some residents did hesitate, and it’s still unknown how widespread the mold problem is — but dozens of families have spoken up, and in many cases it seems it was WHA, not the tenants, who were slow to act.
Erieka Lamberth complained over two years ago and, in the summer of 2019, Phoenix EnviroCrop, WHA's environmental testing firm, detected mold in her kitchen and bathroom. But nothing was done, and Erieka wasn’t informed of the results.
It was only after a second investigation, nearly two years later, that WHA acted. When they did, Erieka barely had time to grab her clothes and children.
Then she spent the spring and summer months moving from hotel to hotel. Her sister Kimberly saw the toll it took.
“She was really tired of being in the hotel. Because I want to say a holiday came might have been Memorial Day or something. And she had to move because the hotel needed those rooms," Kimberly said. "So you know, you're trying to hold a stable job. But how can you whenever, at the drop of a dime, you have to be available to move. That's what they're telling you. You know?"
WHA left residents belongings to molder in storage containers
Nearly 80 families, hundreds of people, are still living in the same situation. Nearly a year after WHA started moving residents out, many of the first apartments tested are still haven't been remediated, the residents are still stuck in hotel rooms. For some, their possessions — furniture, photographs, blankets, clothing, everything that makes an apartment into a home — have been moldering in moving pods, portable storage containers that lack any kind of climate control.
About a dozen of the containers dot the front yards of Creekwood. And since those pods were filled from moldy apartments, those possessions sitting in the summer heat for months became incubators for mold spores.
Longtime WHA human resources head Vernice Hamilton was appointed as the interim director at WHA in September following a string of resignations and restructurings that gutted the authority's upper management. She says it was never the intention for WHA to cause that kind of harm.
“The pods that you see, that was the first option that staff use was the pods to put residents belongings in what we found out, that wasn't the best thing to do. So going forward, what we're doing is we're having to get contracts with storage units that have climate control," Hamilton said.
But even still, those first residents are still stuck with what they got: since the pods are still under contract, that’s where the families’ possessions remain.
Kimberly Lamberth saw the damage to her sister’s belongings firsthand:
“From what I know, I believe mold grows and heat. So pillows that were not properly stored. Were just like pretty much tossed in there, or maybe moved while they were moving the storage pod. Um, and like you could visit, like you could see the mold on that you can see the mold on her furniture, like her couch and her like, love seat you could see it on it. So at that point, you're just like, you don't want to touch anything, you know?”
WHA says it won't let the mold situation get away from it again — but residents are wary
Representatives of WHA say that mold problems won’t get away from them in the future: after the pandemic, the authority will go back to its regular, biannual inspections on units, and hopefully will catch these problems before they become a crisis. It’s unclear yet whether those inspections will now include official mold tests.
In the meantime, Hamilton has a message for residents stuck in the hotels.
“I put myself in their position, how would I feel. And you know, going to the hotel or in a corporate apartment is fine for a while. But if you have a home and this is their home, this is their, you know, I get emotional when I talk about it, because this is where this … This is their home, this is what they know. So we want them back in their homes. And we're gonna work as hard and we're working as hard as we can," Hamilton said, asking anyone who knew of contractors who would do remediation work to contact WHA.
Hamilton has kind words to share, but for some residents and their families, it feels like WHA doesn’t care at all. Many residents who spoke to WHQR said the authority isn't offering updates and, when they call, they often have difficulty getting information. WHA has offered few specifics on how they're dealing with the current crisis — let alone how they'll prevent a future one.
And for Erieka Lamberth, it’s too late. She was killed in August -- struck by a car walking home to her hotel. She was 36.
Her sister says, had she lived, returning home to a storage container full of ruined belongings — would have been devastating.
"If she was still alive, and was able to go back to her apartment, and not being able to have any of her belongings that probably would have killed her," Kimberly said. "You know, you're up against all these obstacles constantly. I couldn't imagine... like she would have been hysterical. As I would. As anyone would when that's all you have.'
Plenty of WHA residents will have to face that very situation. For Kimberly, it’s hard to know what to say to the dozens of families living in the wake of WHA’s failures and mismanagement.
“I don't know what to say when you're going up against a big organization like that. Because compared to the Wilmington Housing Authority you feel small," Kimberly said. "Knowing that they have been aware, knowing they know what they know, but they're choosing to be blind to the situation. I personally feel defeated. And I'm not living in the hotels. I'm not the one that's going through what they're going through — I think they are taking advantage of a vulnerable population.”
Freelance journalist Kevin Maurer and WHQR's Kelly Kenoyer contributed to this reporting. Check back tomorrow for part 3 of WHQR's serial investigation into mold in the Wilmington Housing Authority.