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"Literal mushrooms growing out of walls": Holly Plaza tenants demand emergency rehousing

The entrance to Holly Plaza apartments at sundown. There's a bumpy concrete road leading into the apartment complex lined with cars. On the left there's a white picket sign. The sign has black block letters on it reading "Holly Plaza Apartments." The sun is setting behind it.
Nikolai Mather
Holly Plaza residents say they've been experience mold problems for years.

Dozens of tenants say they have mold. But Holly Ridge Town Council only approved rehousing for one.

UPDATE: During an emergency meeting on Friday afternoon, the Holly Ridge Town Council voted to temporarily rehouse all Holly Plaza tenants for thirty days.

Related — FAQ: What's happening with Holly Ridge residents displaced by mold issues?

On Wednesday mornings, most moms in Holly Ridge are getting their kids ready for school. But on Wednesday, mother of three Briana Paull was at Holly Ridge Town Hall. It's because she found something in her house.

"I'm talking literal mushrooms growing out of walls," she said.

Paull is one of the 98 tenants living at Holly Plaza, a public housing complex in Holly Ridge. The town of Holly Ridge, located a short walk away in town hall, owns the development. Tenants allege that they've dealt with mold and maintenance issues at the complex for years.

The town council called an emergency meeting on Wednesday with an agenda alluding to rehousing a tenant impacted by mold. Holly Plaza residents hoped it would bring them some relief. But now, they're more confused than ever.

"Do you need a place to live or not?"

The town of Holly Ridge owns Holly Plaza. But the complex is subsidized by the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Back in 2019, HUD recommended a property management company to run Holly Plaza's day-to-day operations. That company was Pendergraph Management. It runs public housing properties all over North and South Carolina.

Holly Ridge's housing authority hired Pendergraph Management and charged them with duties like collecting rent, making repairs, and other general upkeep. But tenants allege that for years, the company ignored resident complaints about mold and failed to perform basic maintenance. Tenants also allege that those who spoke out about living conditions were threatened with eviction.

"The line was, 'Do you need a place to live or not?'" said Danielle Blystone, who lives in Holly Plaza with her two kids.

Holly Plaza is Holly Ridge's only public housing complex. Its working-class residents felt like they had nowhere to go. But they said staying in moldy apartments made them sicker and sicker.

Dawn Gilliam moved in with her two children five years ago and noticed major damage: mold in her house and flooding lines on her kitchen cabinets. Pendergraph moved her to another apartment and told her they would remediate it. When she returned, the water lines were still on her cabinets.

Her family's respiratory issues continued to worsen. Last April, it all came to a head.

"I nearly died from a GI hemorrhage that just came out of nowhere," she said.

She decided to test her air for spores and take the sample straight to town hall.

Only one family

Gilliam came to town hall with that sample on Sept. 26. Mayor Jeff Wenzel, who was presiding over the meeting, said that it made a huge impression on him.

"We were completely appalled," he said. "So sympathetic to the citizens living literally right here in our backyard."

He told WHQR that the town council started moving right away. Town officials began making inspections for mold. Kimmee Frankenfield, a grant writer working for town manager Heather Reynolds, started going door-to-door in the complex, asking residents about their living conditions and experiences with Pendergraph Management.

But a month later, Gilliam is still stuck in a moldy apartment. In fact, all but one family is still living in these apartments. That's because on Wednesday, the council voted to provide temporary housing for only one family.

Holly Plaza's tenants were outraged.

"We all have mold throughout. We have no ventilation in our roofs," said Paull. "Are you kidding me right now? For one tenant?"

Council member Pam Hall stated that the emergency meeting was only to help one tenant. Tenants pressed her about whether they could get their own emergency meetings called.

Mayor Wenzel said that he was not able to list a clear set of requirements for getting rehoused. He also said the town council does not have a timeline for when they can rehouse everyone else. They've reached out to federal agencies like HUD, which subsidizes the property, and state agencies for help.

"This situation surpasses the capabilities of our town alone," he said.

"This mold situation could kill them"

As tenants pleaded with council members at Wednesday's meeting, one town official stood up to speak: Frankenfield, the grant writer who had spent the past month talking to residents about the mold.

Council members had reiterated that they were doing everything they could. But in her remarks to the public, Frankenfield said they weren't.

"Are we doing all we can?" she said. "Because it doesn't feel like it from where I stand."

Frankenfield told the council that she had already presented an array of options for rehousing all the tenants at once. She gave this presentation during a closed session on Oct. 20. But during her speech on Wednesday, she said her concerns were dismissed.

"I was told that I was too emotional, that I needed to calm down," she said.

She decided to speak out because she thought the council was taking too long to help the tenants.

"I understand I might lose my job over this and I'm alright with that. Because I'm going to do the right thing," she said. "This mold situation could kill them, it could kill their children."

As of Thursday, Mayor Wenzel confirmed Frankenfield is still an employee, but would not divulge whether she had been reprimanded or placed on leave. Pendergraph did not respond to multiple requests for comment. As of Friday morning, no other family has been promised temporary rehousing.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.