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Seniors at a Pa. federally subsidized housing community fight mold and look for help

Written by Margaret J. Krauss/WESA | Jul 11, 2019 10:10 AM
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Jeanne Delancey, 70, has lived at Beechtree Commons in Penn Hills since 2012. She loves her home, but she worries about her health. "I don't want to have to breathe mold." (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)

Every night, 70-year-old Jeanne Delancey goes to sleep beneath a dinner-plate sized patch of mold that surrounds a vent on her bedroom wall.

"I tried to clean it, you can't even clean it. It doesn't come off," she said.

The mold showed up in Delancey's apartment last summer and she worries about breathing it in--mold can aggravate asthma and lead to infections, especially in more sensitive immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Delancey said she always has a headache and a stuffy nose.

"I have loved living here, except the last year-and-a-half, two years have been just a nightmare. Are they going to come in and shut the whole place down? What are they going to do?" she said. "They don't ever tell us anything."

Beechtree Commons is a federally subsidized community for low-income seniors, owned by the nonprofit National Church Residences. The Columbus, Ohio-based organization operates 340 housing communities nationwide. Company officials say while there have been signs of mold in the last few years, condensation in the walls last summer added to the problem. However, most units were within "acceptable limits." Getting rid of mold is a complicated task, said public relations director Todd Hutchins.

"In the long term, all the residents and the staff in the community will all benefit from taking the time to do this correctly," he said. In a July letter addressed to residents, chief operating officer Steve Bodkin wrote the work could last through spring of 2020.

National Church Residences learned of the mold last summer: a tenant notified the property manager, and it was determined that mold may have spread to additional units, Hutchins said. At the time, the organization hired Belfor, a remediation and restoration company, he said.

"We are trying to do the best we can to operate this building up to code and exceed expectations by doing all the work that we can and get it done as fast as we can," he said.

Building inspectors from Penn Hills' municipal code enforcement department have visited Beechtree Commons numerous times over the last couple years. They found problems such as uncollected garbage, broken elevators, and outdated occupancy permits. In January of this year, inspector Christine Sepesy noted mold in her files for the first time. 

"I did contact management. They did explain that they were aware of it," she said. "They were treating it at that point and they're still treating it as if today, as far as I know."

In fact, several residents had already been moved out of their apartments in November so mold could be removed. Thelma Regan, 87, was one of those them: she was moved first to a hotel, then to Beechtree Commons II, next door. Now Regan lives in a temporary unit a few doors down from her home.

"It's all torn apart. I don't know when they're gonna fix it," she said, saying she hasn't seen contractors going in or out of her place for a long time. "They supposedly have a plan to fix it but I might not live to see it."

Regan's situation makes others worry they'll be relocated indefinitely, said Frank Lomicka, 83, president of the tenants' association and a long-time resident. He moved to Beechtree Commons in 2002 shortly after it opened.

The building has a history of leaks, said Lomicka, whose living room wall was torn out and replaced after mold was found several years ago. Sitting at his kitchen table on Tuesday, he rifled through a folder and pulled out a 2012 letter addressed to the then-president of the company with a concern about leaks in the common room. Hutchins of National Church Residences wrote in an email that each time mold appeared in the common room, it was remediated. 

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Frank Lomicka is Beechtree Commons' long-time tenant association president, and he is worried about the mold. "They're doing nothing," he said. "We're getting the feeling they don't care." (Margaret J. Krauss/WESA)

For months, Lomicka has called and written to everyone he can think of about the current mold problem: the company, local, state, and federal officials. In June, he got a letter of his own: a lease violation notice that warned of potential eviction.

"'You are giving false and exaggerated information to other tenants and contractors regarding the building,'" Lomicka read from the letter. "How am I exaggerating anything?" he asked. 

The letter went on to say that Lomicka's efforts were "interfering with management and the peaceful enjoyment of others."

Dan Vitek, a staff attorney with the Community Justice Project, a nonprofit legal aid law firm, said an account of the letter gave him pause. 

"Management should be very cautious when they issue these notices," he said. "So that they're making sure the residents are not put in fear and are not limited in their rights when in fact what they're doing is not a lease violation."

Lease violations are left to the discretion of local managers, said Hutchins of National Church Residences, but in general "we would never support a property manager evicting residents who are complaining."

Moving forward, company officials said they'll send weekly project updates and install new HVAC units for tenants. 

Last month, a group of Beechtree Commons residents attended a town hall with Congressman Conor Lamb. They sat right up front. When it was time for questions Delancey stood up to ask who could help.

"I thought I was going to throw up when I stood up," she said, because she doesn't like public speaking. "But I thought I have to do this. Somebody has to help us because nobody does anything."

Lamb suggested the tenants contact their local officials. Talking in his office four weeks later, state representative Anthony DeLuca said the problem isn't so bad the building has been shut down, and National Church Residences has been receptive to removing the mold.

"So, you can't ask for anything more from an organization to take care of a problem," he said.

DeLuca said many other operators of senior housing are less responsive to tenants.

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