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Holly Ridge orders Holly Plaza tenants to move out for mold testing

Dawn Gilliam, a white woman in her forties, next to a pile of trash bags on her front lawn. Gilliam is looking away from the camera at the pile, gesturing at the broken down table underneath it with her foot.
Nikolai Mather
Dawn Gilliam with her belongings. Gilliam has been experiencing mold issues and health problems since she moved into Holly Plaza. Now, she's sorting through what she can take with her and what's too moldy to salvage.

The Holly Ridge town council has ordered residents of the public housing complex to relocate by 6 p.m. tonight.

Holly Plaza is usually a pretty busy neighborhood. There's always folks coming to and from work, always some kids playing in the street, always a neighbor hollering a greeting from their front porch.

But on Monday morning, it was a ghost town. That's because the town of Holly Ridge, which owns this public housing complex, has ordered most residents to leave the premises by Monday at 6 p.m.

Last Friday, the town council voted to provide temporary rehousing for all 98 residents living in Holly Plaza. The move followed weeks of deliberation about the apartment complex's ongoing mold crisis.

Now, most of the complex's tenants have moved their lives to a hotel in Jacksonville, where they'll spend the next 30 days waiting for an answer from Holly Ridge.

"Nothing about me is healthy"

Tenants say they've been dealing with mold in their apartments for years. The town of Holly Ridge owns the apartment complex, but in 2019, the town contracted out the day-to-day operations to property management company Pendergraph Management.

Tenants allege that Pendergraph both ignored their complaints about mold and outright threatened to evict them for complaining. Several residents have said that the property management company ordered residents not to bring their complaints to the town government. Pendergraph Management has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Tenants say their concerns fell on deaf ears until Sept. 26. A tenant named Dawn Gilliam took a sample of the air in her HVAC system and brought the petri dish to a town council meeting.

Gilliam is a single mother who's been dealing with mold since she moved in several years ago. Since her family came to Holly Plaza, her asthma has steadily worsened. She said she's also been dealing with chronic fatigue and gastrointestinal bleeds.

"I've had a very successful cleaning business and I've just wound it down because I physically cannot do it," she said.

Long term exposure to household mold can lead to major health issues, particularly for children, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Mold exposure can trigger respiratory issues and fungal infections.

"Nothing about me is healthy," Gilliam said.

Things started changing once she shared her story with the town council. Council members were horrified by what she had been experiencing. On Oct. 27, several weeks after she brought the sample to town hall, the town voted to relocate Gilliam and her neighbors.

"Band-Aid on a bullet hole"

Holly Ridge's town government booked a block of hotel rooms thirty miles north in Jacksonville. Holly Plaza tenants will stay there for the next 30 days so the town can conduct extensive mold testing in the apartment buildings.

"They have to be tested, and it has to be thorough, to protect and mitigate liability to the town," said town manager Heather Reynolds.

Residents may only take the necessities. Reynolds said on Friday that all clothing and linens must be washed prior to the hotel stay. Non-porous valuables like laptops and phones must be disinfected. Everything else – furniture, books, keepsakes, and so on – must stay behind.

"Everything in the unit has to stay until it's determined if there is contamination," she said.

About 50 tenants of Holly Plaza sit and wait for a town hall meeting to begin. They're photographed from the side. They're all sitting in rows of chairs in a cramped sunny room. Many of them are dressed in work uniforms. Some of them are standing, as there are no more chairs available.
Holly Plaza tenants during Friday's emergency meeting. Most of them must evacuate the premises by Monday, Oct. 30 so the town of Holly Ridge can conduct mold testing.

The hotel rooms have kitchenettes, so tenants will still buy their own groceries. Holly Ridge is working on a plan to bus children to and from school and daycare.

Mayor Jeff Wenzel called the temporary rehousing a "Band-Aid on a bullet hole." But he was glad that the town could finally make some changes.

"It's gonna take many more resources than what this town has to fix this," he said. "But we needed to take that first step, to move in the right direction to get the people — to get our neighbors – out of this terrible situation."

Taking care of each other

On Saturday, town officials invited residents to another meeting to discuss the rehousing situation. Officials told tenants that they were fourteen hotel rooms short. They asked people to volunteer to stay through Friday, Nov. 3.

One of the people who volunteered to stay was Gilliam.

"I gotta make sure everybody else is okay first," she said.

In the absence of emergency aid from federal and state agencies, Holly Plaza residents are trying to help each other. Over the weekend, tenants coordinated child care, packing supplies, laundry services and other resources to help the most vulnerable folks in their community.

They're also asking for help from other folks in the Cape Fear region. Tenants need small kitchen appliances, like air fryers and hotplates, so they can make meals in the kitchenettes of their hotel rooms. Donations in the form of grocery store gift cards, gas cards, diapers and so on are welcome, too.

Residents say that, for better or worse, they see this neighborhood as a family. That's part of the reason why Gilliam is staying: she figures she's already sick, and she wants her neighbors to get a safe place first.

"A few more days is not going to hurt me," she said. "I do it for everybody else. I can be strong for everybody else."

Gilliam is using this time to finish sorting through her belongings — what she can take, and what she has to leave behind. She got started this past week.

On Monday morning, there was still a pile of trash bags covered with morning dew on her front lawn. They were full of linens and clothes. There was a busted up table, a beautiful old record player, some chairs.

It's all too moldy to take with her.

A pile of trash bags on the front lawn of a white townhouse.
A pile of trash bags on the front lawn of Dawn Gilliam's Holly Plaza townhouse.

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.