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Mold forces 33 elderly and disabled out of low-rent apartment in Immokalee

By TRACY X. MIGUEL

Friday, August 7, 2009

— Mold and problems with what could be Chinese drywall are forcing 33 elderly, low income and disabled residents from their low-rent apartment complex in Immokalee.

Though residents said they can’t afford to leave, some, who have been complaining of respiratory problems, can’t really stay either.Greenish-gray mold creeps up the outside walls at Bromelia Place and there is more mold inside several units.

The mold the 30-unit apartment complex may have been caused by faulty windows or the possible use of defective Chinese drywall.

The 33 tenants were given until the end of August to move out and find a new place to live.

“We are all full of anxiety. We are scared,” Cynthia Allen, 52, said. “I’m fearful because I don’t know what my future is going to be next month.”

After testing a piece of the wall in an apartment for Chinese drywall, officials found mold, said Cheryl Wickersham, vice president of housing for the building’s owner United Church Homes Inc., a not-for-profit retirement services corporation offering housing, health care and other services.

Further testing revealed excessive levels of mold. Owners felt that moving the tenants would be the best option, Wickersham said, who also serves as assistant secretary and treasurer of Immokalee Senior Housing.

Wickersham said the mold was caused by water damage from faulty windows. She said the windows installed were made for a concrete block building. Bromelia Place is wood frame.

Since the apartments, also known as Immokalee Senior Housing, opened in 2007 Southwest Florida’s rainy seasons have soaked the building.

A lodging licensing inspection of Bromelia Place was done on March 19, 2008 and a routine lodging inspection was conducted on Dec. 2, 2008. Both times, the complex met inspection standards, according to the The Department of Business and Professional Regulations Web site.

Collier County code enforcement has no active case at Bromelia Place, Collier County spokesman John Torre said.

Officials from United Church Homes Inc. met with tenants about one month ago and then again last week to inform them of the situation.

On July 30, tenants received a landlord notice of termination and a 30-day notice of eviction. They must move out by Aug. 31. In addition, four tenants received a memo to temporarily vacate their apartments until repairs were completed. The memo was later recalled, officials said.

With month-to-month leases, state law only requires a 15-day notice to vacate. A year lease requires a 60-day notice.

For the past two weeks, officials have been searching diligently to find affordable housing for tenants. For many, there’s a language barrier.

Allen, who has been a tenant for about 14 months, said she has been looking for another apartment, but apartments in the same price range in Immokalee are scarce. She pays $119 per month for her one-bedroom apartment.

She was also searching for apartments in Alabama, yet worried that a check from the landlord for $500 to assist in moving expenses wouldn’t cover her relocation.

Allen’s apartment had mold on her windowsill near her sofa and mold spores on the window.

Allen, who has been experiencing difficulty breathing, was upset that apartment officials wouldn’t pay for any medical bills caused by the mold.

“We are desperate for some help and we definitely need legal representation,” said Allen, who suffers from a panic disorder.

Wickersham said there were plenty of units in Immokalee available but it has been difficult to find affordable housing.

At the end of July, the complex’s owners filed litigation with the building’s contractor, Siltek Group Inc.

Siltek officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

After repairs, officials said they hope to re-open Bromelia Place — one of two apartments sponsored by United Church Homes Inc. in Immokalee — and allow existing tenants to have first choice of the apartments. United Church Homes Inc. has 16 properties in 14 states across the nation.

Greg Sharp, 54, who has a pacemaker and is physically disabled, said he’s been having difficulty breathing.

“I live on $600 a month, what am I suppose to do,” Sharp, whose trash can was covered with mold, said.

He said apartment officials have told him that he would be helped.

Sharp will be relocated to Ohio near his family, officials said later this week.

Danny Thomas, 63, and some other residents have plans to move to Crestview Park Apartments in Immokalee.

Thomas questioned why apartment officials let him move in on June 17.

Now, Thomas, who suffers from throat cancer, said he has to go somewhere he cannot afford, because he has no other option.

His one-bedroom apartment rent will increase from $153 at Bromelia Place to $400 at Crestview Park Apartments.

Despite having cancer and facing a financial hardship, he’s optimistic.

“There’s no reason to get upset for something you can’t do anything about,” Thomas said.

Follow transportation reporter Tracy X. Miguel at twitter.com/ndn_tmiguel.

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