As WHA's mold crisis grinds on, a displaced mother and her children face a tough Christmas
This Christmas, there will be over a hundred families spending the day in cramped hotel rooms, displaced from their homes by the mold crisis at the Wilmington Housing Authority. WHQR spoke to one mother as she tries to make the best of a bad situation.
Latoya Willis is doing everything she can to bring a little merriment to her family’s Christmas — from hiding gifts in the corner of the room to considering cramming a tree into the corner near the bathroom of her double hotel room.
Willis, a 37-year-old resident of Houston Moore, and her five children ranging from nine to three years old are living in one of the many economy hotels off Market Street. Willis and her children share two double beds. Her three young sons sleep in one and Willis sleeps with her daughter – the nine-year-old – and her three-year-old son.
The room is cramped for a short stay let alone for the month Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA) needs to remediate her apartment, but it beats the alternative.
“We make it work,” Willis said. “We have no choice. Either stay here or go back to the moldy house.”
Willis and her kids are one of 111 WHA families faced with spending the holiday season in cramped hotel rooms because of mold plaguing the WHA’s properties and the lack of leadership remaining at the organization to address it.
The mold crisis is costing WHA hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in rent and stipends to keep these families in hotels around the city, and millions to repair their homes. But most of all, it has displaced residents who are often unclear about when they might return home.
An uncertain Christmas
“I don’t know where I’m about to be,” Willis said. “We’re living from day to day.”
A month ago, Willis and her family moved out of Houston Moore after her apartment tested positive for mold. Like many residents, she reported the mold some time ago — but it took a year before the WHA acted. She has already spent Thanksgiving displaced. With Christmas coming, Willis is determined to celebrate. There’s a new bike in the corner of her hotel room off Market Street and two bags of gifts for her five kids. That is the only evidence that Christmas is a week away.
Last Friday, Willis was trying to figure out how to bring a little of the holiday spirit to the cramped room off Market Street. Her children want a tree, but there is no room for it. And with no kitchen, Willis isn’t sure where her family will eat a holiday meal.
“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to cook,” Willis said. “We have no stove in here unless we go back to the moldy house and cook.”
Willis requested a room with a kitchen and says WHA officials told her they were trying to source one for her. In the meantime, Willis said WHA told her she could return to her moldy apartment to cook and wash clothes.
“What’s the difference going there and cooking during the day and us staying there,” Willis said. “We’re still inhaling mold. There is no difference at all.”
Temporary, tenuous housing
Hotel living isn't just cramped and inconvenient. There are also concerns about drugs, trafficking, and other crime — especially at the low-cost hotels on Market Street, some of which have been notorious for decades.
Staying in a hotel is all unpredictable — WHA often rents by week, and WHQR has heard dozens of stories of WHA families having to leave their temporary homes. Reasons range from seasonal or holiday rate spikes to large parties with reservations to unconfirmed reports of hotel management simply not wanting WHA families in their units anymore.
This is the second hotel for Willis and her family. She was staying at another property, but was asked to leave the day before Thanksgiving. The day before she was kicked out, she complained about a broken microwave. Willis said the previous hotel didn’t provide housekeeping to WHA families and banned them from having visitors. Any trouble with hotel management and staff led to a call to WHA. After her eviction from her first hotel, Willis said she was threatened with eviction from Houston Moore before getting her current hotel room.
Earlier this month, more than 20 families — many residents of Creekwood and Houston Moore — were all thrown out of the Holiday Inn Express off Medical Center Drive because of a wedding party. They were notified less than 24 hours in advance. Many of the families were forced to move in with family members or making their own hotel arrangements. Most of the frustration was aimed at WHA because of no communication about the pending displacement from WHA. The authority was able to find shelter for all of the families but only after what one employee called an “all hands on deck day.”
[Editor's note: While most residents blamed WHA and not the hotel, WHQR did contact InterContinental Hotels Group, which operates the Holiday Inn Express brand, for a comment — but never received an official response.]
WHQR spoke to several hotels where WHA families are staying. Most said they had no issues and made no complaints to WHA. Some suggested that they had called WHA, in particular over the issue of WHA families receiving visitors. While many hotels have restricted guests over Covid concerns none of the hotels WHQR visited prevented reporters from entering the building or visiting rooms to interview families. All of the hotels WHQR spoke to said they had provided WHA families with the same housekeeping as other guests.
For displaced tenants, no end in sight
Being displaced comes with a host of issues, clearly, but most of all what residents told WHQR they want to know is when they can go home. Rhino Demolition and Environmental Services Corp is still WHA’s only remediation contractor and there is still work to do on units in Houston Moore — and then there's Creekwood, Hillcrest, and other locations. And once the remediation is done, WHA needs to undertake costly rehab to get the units back up to livable standards — and the authority has had almost no success attracting new rehab contractors.
WHA officials told Willis she could be home by the end of January, but she isn’t optimistic. According to WHA's recent update to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, it may be a year — or more — before all the displaced families are returned home. It's hard for residents, especially mothers, to find any comfort in that.
“The way things are going I feel like I’m being ignored or me and my kids are being pushed aside,” Willis said. “I didn’t ask for none of this. I told (WHA) a year ago about the mold in my house. (WHA) could have done something then and I wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”