JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – At least 74 units at the troubled Eureka Gardens apartment complex have not yet been certified as mold free, according to representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those five representatives were at the 400-unit federally subsidized housing complex Monday to talk to residents who are still angry and upset about their living conditions.
Residents yelled and cried Monday during the meeting with HUD officials from Jacksonville and Atlanta at the Eureka Gardens Community Center. More than a dozen residents were at the meeting, wanting to know why HUD renewed its contract last month with Global Ministries Foundation, which owns the complex.
They also wanted to know why it is taking so long to clean up mold at the complex.
“We're pretty feisty because we're just upset for living like this, living in a deplorable state,” resident Mona Lisa Arnold said. “We just need some help. Help from the city. Help from the mayor. Help from everybody.”
According to a mold inspection report, testing done in November and December revealed temperature and relative humidity in the units were generally above acceptable ranges.
Water damage was noted below windows and behind toilets, window AC units were dirty and lacking maintenance and there was elevated moisture in drywall around windows, according to the report.
In 248 units, there was also an elevated presence of three types of mold spores: penicillium/aspergillus, stachybotrys chaetomium, and cladosporium. Eighty percent of the units showed past drywall repairs and 62 units had visible mold, according to the report.
Mold exposure, particularly for those sensitive to it, can cause nasal congestion, eye irritation, wheezing or skin irritation. Severe reactions can include fever and shortness of breath.
Jacksonville City Councilmen Garrett Dennis and Tommy Hazouri, who have been vocal in their criticism of GMF and its founder, the Rev. Richard Hamlet, learned of Monday's HUD meeting with residents through I-TEAM tweets and showed up to talk to tenants themselves.
After arriving, Dennis thanked the HUD representatives for coming but expressed his concerns about being left out of the conversation.
"I'm disappointed you didn't tell me about the meeting, if we are supposed to be a team and working together,” Dennis said.
HUD representatives admitted they should have notified city leaders about the meeting and promised more transparency with the city.
They scheduled another meeting for 10 a.m. Tuesday and said they want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly about living conditions at the complex.
“It's hard to be encouraged until I see some real action,” Hazouri said. “When I see the mold removed, when I see some of the repairs being done at a quicker pace than they are doing.”
Hazouri said he came to the meeting to represent the interests of Eureka Gardens and Washington Heights residents. Both complexes are owned by GMF. He said it's a citywide problem.
"If I had my way, they (GMF) would get the hell out of Jacksonville," Hazouri said. “I wish we could just go out there with a hammer and nails and take care of everything, but we can't. They can't move anywhere. They're threatening people. Nobody knows about it, but it's the contractors or whomever, and that's kind of a shame, because they're in tears. Their children are in tears. They've been to the doctors over and over again. These things shouldn't exist in Jacksonville, Florida, or any city.”
Arnold said she appreciated the councilmen showing up to the meeting.
“Coming to stand up for us, that's right,” Arnold said. “Garrett Dennis was out here when the gas line blew up. He was out here all night long with us. Him and Mr. Hazouri are coming to help us. Thank the Lord for them.”
Dennis challenged HUD officials Monday to stay a week at Eureka Gardens with him. It's a challenge he told the I-TEAM he will honor.
“It's one thing to sit behind a desk in the ivory towers and just delegate and just talk about what's going on, but (it's another) to actually be on the front lines to see,” Dennis said.
The HUD representatives said Monday that they are committed to the residents and ensuring the cleanup continues at the complex, which barely passed its last HUD inspection with a score of 62c. A passing score is 60.
The representatives told residents that if drywall or paint are used to cover up mold, residents should let HUD know immediately, because GMF could be in trouble.
“This is my third time visiting the property in about 4½ months, and I will be back again,” HUD official Ed Jennings said. “We need to hear how we're doing. We need to hear how the owner's doing. We need to hear their commentary on the process and that's what we're here for.”
'Dogs live better than this,' Eureka Gardens resident says
Eureka Gardens resident Dwan Wilson, whose living conditions brought a city councilman's assistant to tears during a code enforcement raid last October, expressed her continued frustrations Monday, saying “dogs live better than this.”
The mother of four pleaded with HUD to put her family in safer housing.
"Who's working with who? Who's in cahoots? The people want to know," Wilson said. "What are we hiding here that we don't want to expose to the people that we don't want say things on camera?"
Wilson showed News4Jax her apartment seven months ago and she said Monday that her home is one of the units that still has mold.
She said the residents of Eureka Gardens and the many children who live and breath the the inside air every day are being forced to pay.
"I feel as though we don't let murderers keep on murdering and then take them to jail. So why should we keep giving this man time to make our children sicker in and out of town?" Wilson asked.
News4Jax spoke with Dr. Vandana Bhide with Mayo Clinic, who shared some of the effects that the types of mold found can create.
"They can cause worsening wheezing, irritation of the lungs, difficulty breathing, rational, sneezing, runny nose, headaches. So these are all possible," Bhide said.
She said one of the molds found can even cause mycotoxins, which are dangerous for anyone but especially to those with growing or declining health.
"The people we especially worry about, of course, are young children. Just because they are smaller so they have more area to be exposed. And then people who are elderly and people who are immunocompromised," Bhide said.
Jennings said Eureka Gardens still has a ways to go and he said HUD will continue to hold meetings to help give tenants a voice.
"When people are upset and they are living in conditions that they believe are not appropriate they get to voice that and that's what they should do. That's what I'm here for and that's what my team is here for," Jennings said.
The best way for tenants to contact Jennings is by calling his office at 678-732-2009, or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.