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Part IV - Behind hotel doors, a look at the lives disrupted by WHA's mismanagement

Ben Schachtman / Kimberly Lamberth
Clockwise from top left: Sonya Muldrow in her garden; Erieka Lamberth's daughter Alexis Gower (top) and sister Kimberly (bottom); many families are living behind hotel doors.

The Wilmington Housing Authority's ongoing mold mitigation project has been a disaster by any standard. The costs are soaring and the total financial expense remains unknown. But the human cost is serious, too — hundreds of residents displaced from their homes. WHQR takes a closer look at the people behind those numbers.

This is Part 4 of an investigative series on mold problems in the Wilmington Housing Authority. You can find the rest of the series as it publishes here.

One way to understand the mold crisis at the Wilmington Housing Authority is by the numbers: 78 families displaced, hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in rent and stipends to keep them in hotels around the city, and untold millions to repair their homes.

And those numbers make a point — but to be honest they also miss part of the story, the story of people, who had lives, families, careers, and dreams before they had to pack what they could in a suitcase and leave their homes, not knowing for how long.

Everyone's experience of displacement has been — and continues to be — different. For some, the hardest part is being away from their community and family, for others it's the isolation and claustrophobia of a hotel room, and for still others, it's the lack of answers from WHA.

One throughline, though, is cooking. Coming up on Thanksgiving, it's hard to ignore — there's no oven in a hotel to roast a turkey, no table at which to sit down. Holidays aside, there's no place for the everyday cooking that's part of so many people's lives — it's central to home, it's a way to stay healthy, to save money, to stay connected. It's not the kind of thing you think about losing, until you do.

Erieka Lamberth

The Lamberth sisters: Kimberly (top) and Erieka (bottom).
Kimberly Lamberth
Erieka Lamberth's daughter Alexis (top) and sister (Kimberly) bototm.
Remembering Erieka Lamberth, reported by WHQR's Kelly Kenoyer

Erieka Lamberth was a prolific cook who cared deeply about her family. She lived in Woodbridge Apartments, one of the Wilmington Housing Authority’s seven properties. She died in August from a car crash while crossing the street from work back to the hotel where she was staying.

Her sister Kimberly says it’s been hard living without her.

“That’s what my daughter said a couple of weeks ago. And I just can't eat corn anymore because nobody cooks corn like tee-tee [her aunt]," she said.

Erieka’s eldest daughter, Alexis Gower, says her mother loved to cook for her family.

“She used to cook chicken all the time too, her chicken is really good. I know how to cook everything I learned from her. But seafood was definitely my favorite thing that she would do," Alexis said.

Kimberly says it was hard for Erieka to go without cooking in the months before her death.

“Whenever cooking is your passion, and you that's what you love to do, and you don't have that — That was like another thing that was just like, you know, I can't even cook for my kids," she said.

Erieka couldn’t cook because she was living in a small hotel room without even a kitchenette before she died. Kimberly is still mourning her deeply.

"She was crazy, funny. Love. She was everything. And we have a younger sister. So it was me, her, and Erieka growing up in the home — she was just that Big Sister, you know. I was able to pretty much live through her. I'm like the one that's gonna play it safe. And that's not her. She's feeling a way, she's gonna let you know how she feels. very outspoken, outgoing. Everybody loved her," she said.

Alexis says her mom was a warm and loving person, and her best friend.

"She cared about everybody and talked to everybody that she met. It doesn't matter who you are. She just liked to speak and liked to acknowledge people's feelings. I tried to be the same way. She's very good influence on me," she said.

They had a lot in common and would get their nails done together for quality time. Her mom also took a lot of pictures.

“She loves to take pictures of literally everything. It used to be annoying, but now I'm grateful for the pictures because I have so many," Alexis said.

Erieka’s four kids are all living in Johnson county now with their fathers. They lost not only their mother, but their home and nearly all their possessions. Kimberly calls it a "nightmare.”

When Ereika had to leave her apartment, WHA paid contractors to pack up all her things into a POD, or a temporary outdoor storage container. They moved it after it was packed, and it sat in the summer heat for months.

When the family finally got to open it up, it was in complete disarray. TVs were broken, and worse. WHA declined to compensate the family for the loss, and Erieka didn't have homeowners' or renters' insurance that might have covered it.

“As soon as you open it up, you could see that there was mold on everything. To the point where like the kids had bunk beds, you could see at the bottom where mold was starting to creep up her queen size Bed... So the kids weren't able to get anything," Kimberly said.

The damage was thousands of dollars — but for the family, it wasn't about money, but the family history. The loss was hard for Alexis. She wanted to wrap herself up in her mother’s memories, but they were destroyed.

“Mostly, mostly just blankets and stuff? Yeah, like a Scooby Doo blanket that. Like I used to have at my grandma's house and stuff," she said.

But she can remember her mother by the tattoos she had: “I do tattoos and piercings on myself. Kind of because of her honestly. She has 16 tattoos. I used to count them on her whenever I was little. And I have more than that, now, even though I'm like way younger than she was but I do tattoos and she was like once I started getting good. She told me I needed to tattoo her. But I just never got to," Alexis said.

While the family will never forget Erieka, Kimberly says it feels like WHA already has. The last transaction between Erieka's family and the authority was when WHA cut a small check — the cost of food lost when contractors accidentally unplugged Erieka's deep freezer.

For Kimberly, it was cold, bureaucratic, and final.

“I think for them that was just pretty much like, okay, case closed ... Like they don't care, like they don't really support the individuals that they have living in these homes," she said.

Sonya Muldrow

Sonya Muldrow and her community garden in Creekwood.
Ben Schachtman
Sonya Muldrow and her community garden in Creekwood.

Sonya Muldrow helped bring the issue at WHA to light, speaking out not just for herself, but for her neighbors in Creekwood, where she's lived for nine years.

“I really care about my community. And a lot of them don't want to speak on these issues. Because they're scared they won't have anywhere to go. Or they'll get put out. Or, you know, and that's understandable. That's understandable. But, you know, like I said, whatever the consequences, I'm gonna stand strong, and I'm gonna stand firm and I'm gonna keep talking. This won't be the last you hear me. I'm gonna keep talking. Because the people in these positions need to be held accountable," she said.

Sonya’s a master gardener, who runs a community garden bed in her back yard. She's invested in her community's health — issues like diabetes, obesity, food insecurity — and representation, serving as the first chair for her precinct, W15.

She also knows how some people see 'the projects,' from the outside. But she hopes that will change.

"People, the community, I'm talking about Wilmington as a whole, they don't get it. They stereotype. Yeah, they stay in a project. It's this type of way: the drugs, the gangs, and all that. Listen — it's good people out here. You know, it's good people. They just want a chance, you know, if you give them a chance, but how are they gonna get a chance when you got people that we put in office and in these positions, just doing anything they want to with our lives, like it's okay, it's acceptable — That's not acceptable," she said.

She’s also a home cook -- and cooking’s deeply important to her — but she’s lost that now that she’s been forced to move into a hotel.

“it's expensive. And it's expensive. Um, I try I have a crock pot. And I took my air fryer but — that's not gonna work, I need water, I need to wash dishes. I need to be clean. I need somewhere to prep the food before I do it. You know, and I can't do all that in a bathroom sink. It's no way possible," she said.

Sonya says wants to get back to cooking, and gardening, and being part of her community — but, like so many others, she remains at mercy of WHA’s remediation process.

Latorche Jones

Most of Latorche Jones' life over the last six months has been behind the door of a small hotel room.
Ben Schachtman
Most of Latorche Jones' life over the last six months has been behind the door of a small hotel room.
Sonya Muldrow and Latorche Jones, reported by WHQR's Ben Schachtman

Latorche Jones' ordeal started with a sinus infection. Latorche was pregnant at the time and after delivering her baby returned to her Creekwood home in February 2021. Her baby son hadn't been home long before he had the same symptoms. Jones knew something was wrong.

Latorche saw what she later learned were mold spores near the vents and asked WHA to test her home.

“I saw it, but didn’t know it was mold,” she said. “I just knew I kept getting sick.”

Related — Mold 101: The spores plaguing Wilmington's housing authority can cause infections, allergic reactions, and asthma

WHA tested her apartment in February 2021 but Jones didn’t learn the results until April 2021. And only after she was told to ask for them by a family member who worked for WHA — she says there are plenty of other residents in Creekwood who don't know that, unless they advocate for themselves, they'll never get information from the authority.

Several months after the mold tests, Latorche was moved out of her home in the spring. She’d just given birth to her son two months earlier. She was working on starting up her own business — and had plans to move out of the projects.

Now, she’s in a cramped room in a hotel off of Market Street. Latorche spends much of the day here — she can’t leave her son unattended, and the hotel manager, she says, dislikes what he calls ‘the housing authority’ people being out of their rooms.

Latorche sits on the bed; her son, Quintell, now eight months, nurses a bottle next to her. When the interview starts he’s fussy, but he calms down when Latorche turns up Nickelodeon — first Bubble Guppies, then Blues Clues.

Like the other displaced tenants, she’s getting stipend checks — but said it’s not worth it.

“Now that I'm in getting this money and I'm really sitting here thinking like this is not worth it — it's not worth my peace and my sense you know this is really driving me crazy," she said.

Also like other tenants, she’s had to suffer the indignities of WHA mismanagement. For just one example, the housing authority recently realized that the PODS it was using to store people’s belongings were acting as mold incubators. So, they started moving people’s possessions, including Latorche’s, into storage facilities. WHA contacted her and gave her a key — but couldn’t tell her which storage facility it went to.

“How do you give me a key to something but you don't even know where it is? Does that make sense? They make you feel like you're slow, like something's wrong with you — ain't nothing wrong with me, I've got good common sense," she said.

The room barely has ten feet between the door and bed, all the room that Quintell has to toddle around in. Latorche points out, there’s nowhere to put a Christmas tree or cook Thanksgiving dinner.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Latorche has always been a cook, and before being displaced dreamt of going pro with a food truck or other food business. Like so many other displaced residents, cooking was a big part of what made her home a home. Now, there’s just a narrow counter around the sink in her room, barely room to wash baby bottles.

Quintell’s first holiday season is going to be tough, but Latorche can somehow see past it to something better.

Looking at her son, Latorche says, "gonna be his first, and last," in a hotel.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.
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.
Kevin Maurer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Wilmington, North Carolina.