TARGET 8: Jeff City public housing tenants plea for better living conditions

1 year 5 months 1 week ago February 11, 2016 Feb 11, 2016 Thursday, February 11 2016 Thursday, February 11, 2016 8:53:00 PM CST in Target 8
By: Emma Henderson, KOMU 8 Reporter
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JEFFERSON CITY - Living conditions in one public housing complex have a mother too worried to sleep through the night. She's worried because, in the past roughly two years, she has seen her young son's health deteriorate.

The mother, who has asked to remain anonymous, is part of a growing group of concerned neighbors on Elizabeth Street. Another resident, Angela Whitman, has become a regular at many city meetings to discuss mold issues.

Whitman began advocating for the residents of her neighborhood to try and get what they described as harmful living situations repaired.

"A community works when people are talking together in a community. It eliminates a lot of crime because neighbors are looking out for neighbors. You can get a lot of things accomplished when there's community going on," Whitman said. 

HEALTH CONCERNS

The mother mentioned above blamed the living conditions for why her son has been getting sick.

He had been hospitalized, and in and out of the urgent care many times since the family moved into their original apartment on Elizabeth Street.

The resident provided KOMU 8 News with documents related to her child's treatment, which began in June 2014.

The first record of her asking for a transfer to another apartment due to mold exposure was on Oct. 10, 2014, but she was not permitted a transfer until around a year later.  

The original document the resident filed with the Jefferson City Housing Authority said, "Walls, mold keeps coming back in the bathroom. My children has/gets unusual rashes on their skin after getting out of the tub."

It also stated issues with the ceiling above the toilet caving in and being repaired multiple times, water running out of the ceiling in the bathroom.

The mother wrote, "I am hoping that I can be moved to another unit so that my children and I don't have to worry about the risks breathing mold and bathing."

The woman told KOMU 8 News: "I thought my son was going to die on me because he was not breathing well. You could see all of his bones and everything else, and he just keeled over from not breathing well, and I had to rush him over to the hospital and, at that point, I decided I was not going to accept what they were saying. They never wanted to deal with the mold issues, and then they were charging me to come and repair the mold, and they were coming in and plastering over the mold instead of fixing it."

Along with emergency trips to the doctor, the resident also took her child to Allergy and Asthma Consultants of the Ozarks who stated "significant allergy and breathing problems" and that they "appear to be triggered by mold exposure."

The child tested positive for mold when a skin test was conducted, and a warning in the letter stated "his condition is likely to deteriorate if he remains in an environment with significant dust and mold exposure." The letter is dated June 23, 2015, nine months after the initial complaint to the housing authority, and the family was still living in the original apartment that was believed to have mold problems.

The specialist recommended the child be "offered opportunities to move to better housing with higher indoor air quality," but nothing was done for months.

In November 2015 the family was finally able to move out of the apartment that was believed to cause the child's medical problems. Since moving into their new apartment, the child has been able to reduce the amount of inhaler treatments.

On October 15, 2015, almost two months before her family was moved, the resident filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit against the Jefferson City Housing Authority for negligence, breach of contract, and libel. She cited "unethical treatment, endangering the health of my children and me, environmental violations, retaliation for putting tenants through necessary financial hardships (cleaning products, transportation, medical bills, emergency room visits, medical expenses and equipment and cab/transportation costs)."

Doctors still don't know if the child will fully recover. The child remains on multiple medications to help with breathing.

HOUSING ISSUES: MOLD AND MOISTURE

When KOMU 8 News conducted an interview with the tenant about her child's health issues, she also talked about other concerns expressed by tenants and herself.

"You barely even want to touch anything because you know you're going to be charged for everything, and we're just wondering what constitutes normal wear and tear. If you're charging us for everything, what's normal wear and tear?" she said.

When KOMU 8 News initially began investigating, Whitman believed her residence was in much better shape than other tenants. A few weeks later part of her bathroom ceiling fell in and sent her to the emergency room.

Residents provided KOMU 8 News with photos of some of their concerns (see gallery above). In multiple situations residents stated the problems they were referring to had been fixed by maintenance before but still kept breaking.

KOMU 8 News was allowed to look at conditions in multiple residences that included large gaps in baseboards allowing cold air to come through; visible stains on the ceilings; and broken floor tiles. In one bathroom, the ceiling appeared to be sinking in, and when asked, the resident said maintenance had already repaired the problem twice. The resident's biggest concern was that the ceiling would fall in on someone while they are showering.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted an inspection of 10 units on Elizabeth Street on December 23, 2015. HUD discovered water in light fixtures, corrosion, rotting floors, and seals that are meant to prevent house fire from spreading to the celling that were not in the proper place.

In one of the units, the tenants were complaining of mold in a lower level bedroom. Inspectors discovered that gutter downspouts were draining "directly at the foundation". It was suggested that a pipe be buried in the ground carrying the water 10 feet away from the foundation. The repairs still haven't been made because of weather.  The report says "water draining at foundation infiltrates interior of unit between foundation wall/footing and poured interior slab." It said this issue was "typical of multiple properties."

Despite these issues, the inspection report signed by the director of the Office of Public Housing in St. Louis viewed the Elizabeth Street properties maintenance plan and stated, "The maintenance plan is excellent and should be used as a model for best practice with other housing authorities that are having problems with their maintenance programs." It also stated, "The Jefferson City Public Housing Authorities maintenance program is excellent."

KOMU 8 News collected mold samples from two Elizabeth Street unit bathrooms as well as a piece of drywall from the mother's original unit. We had the samples tested by Dr. Jeanne Mihail, Associate Director of the Division of Plant Science at the University of Missouri who does research on fungi.  All three samples tested positive and are undergoing further DNA analysis.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

In the past few months, a few dedicated members of the Elizabeth Street community have been organizing their community to try to combat issues with living conditions and create a neighborhood environment. 

It began with Whitman, who got a few people together to plan a community meeting on October 10. She was surprised how many people attended.

"I'm a fairly new resident of public housing here in Jefferson City, I have never lived in public housing before. I had a kid that wanted to go to school here at Lincoln but they were on overflow and I needed a place to live," Whitman said. "I got to know a lot of my neighbors and I asked 'hey, if there's a community meeting would you like to come?' The feedback was excellent. A lot of people were like 'we've never had that before, so yeah, lets try it.'"

Public officials were asked to attend as well, and a few city council members and housing authority officials ended up joining the community.

There are more people that have expressed interest since the October meeting, and Whitman, along with a few other residents, are currently working to assemble a residents' board.  

This would allow them to have a resident attend pubic housing meetings, something that doesn't happen currently.

Whitman has also been in discussion with Lincoln University to create other activities that will foster a sense of community on Elizabeth Street. 

In early December, children in the public housing complex were invited to Lincoln University's campus for a Christmas party, where they were able to have pizza, play video games, go bowling and meet Santa Claus. 

This was the first event for an organization the university and a local church were starting called "LU Grassroots".

PUBLIC OFFICIALS' RESPONSE

"I went to a city council meeting and the first time I went, I think they were shocked. Shell shocked that I'm standing up talking about a community that had fallen so to the wayside that nobody ever makes mention of it," Whitman said. "They just kind of looked at me. Nobody asked any questions. I cried because I live here. I'm a registered voter. I live here, I pay to stay here, and I don't want people in positions to get comfortable and just because this is a bad community over here, you're not to help us."

KOMU 8 spoke to Councilman Rick Mihalevich who serves Ward 2, which is where Elizabeth Street is located.

"I've been sent pictures, and I've got pictures of what primarily looks like mold and mildew," Mihalevich said. "We appoint the members that are on the housing authority board and relay issues that we have been brought forward to us and relay those to the housing authority director and then to the board as appropriate."

Since Whitman's first appearance at city council, she has been working with many council members and other community officials to figure out what they can do to help improve living conditions on Elizabeth Street.

Mihalevich says he has seen positive improvements since Whitman began getting more Elizabeth Street residents active in their community. He hopes that her influence will get even more residents involved.

"The value is that one becomes 19 which becomes one-hundred and 19 that's where we get change, and the residents themselves helping us with our eyes and ears to change what's going on in their neighborhood," Mihalevich said.

KOMU 8 News spoke to Cynthia Quetsch, the new director of the Housing Authority of Jefferson City. She said that after the HUD inspection, she was told that there is a mildew problem in some units, but that mildew is a tenant's responsibility.

"I'm not saying there's no mold, but apparently what HUD found was all mildew," Quetsch said. 

Quetsch personally toured some of the Elizabeth Street apartments as maintenence workers checked for moisture. She said she believes the maintenence team is doing its due diligence when mold complaints come up and that tenants should continue reporting. 

"Tenants have an obligation to come and make a complaint to us. We don't have any way of knowing. We're not talking to people, neighbors to find out what other neighbors are complaining about," Quetsch said. "If it was life endangering, of course we would take them out."

Quetsch does believe that most residents are happy with their living arrangements. "While we do have some tenants that are dissatisfied, we do have a large number who are happy to be living here and grateful to have the opportunity to have a clean, safe place to live," Quetsch said.

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