It’s ʽraining mold’ and making people sick in area apartments
Mark Hayden collects clumps of mold the size of ping pong balls and said he lines them along the rim of his bathroom sink. He keeps them as “evidence of abuse” by the management of Williams Park Apartments in New London.
Hayden, who is 52 and disabled, said he first noticed clumps of mold in 2010 while cleaning his shower with a handheld shower head. When he sprayed the water at the vent on his bathroom ceiling, mold bounced down to the floor and the water came down completely black.
“It rained mold,” he said.
Hayden has asthma, but said he only started using an inhaler after moving into Williams Park Apartments. He said he is “losing hope” that management will help him improve his quality of life in the apartment building, since they haven’t fixed the mold issue after his 12 years of living there.
The 72 units at Williams Park Apartments are federally subsidized housing for disabled and elderly adults. The building is located at 127 Hempstead St. in New London. It is owned by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and operated by the New London Housing Authority. Residents pay 30% of their monthly income in rent.
“I believe the housing is safe,” said Matthew Anderson of the Imagineers property management company, who is director of rental management at Williams Park Apartments. “I also believe there needs to be significant investment (at the federal level) and redevelopment since it is an old building.”
For Hayden and others living in affordable housing, the issue is larger than being sick from mold. The issue is feeling as though they have no control over their health because of the housing situations they are in.
Mold is present in every property, said Ledge Light Health District Environmental Technician Cheryl Haase.
“Mold is everywhere,” she said. “If you were to test the bottom of my shoe for mold, you would find it.”
Since 2017, Ledge Light Health District has received 377 mold housing complaints from New London County, including both renters and homeowners.
Since there are no federal or state laws regulating mold, many renters in affordable housing cannot repair situations where they are sick from mold, and management is not always required by law to fix environments that are unhealthy due to mold.
Branford Manor’s mold problem
Christina Tejeda, who lives in Branford Manor Apartments in Groton, is frustrated she cannot protect her children from being sick from mold. She said her 12-year-old son had hives from “head to toe” due to a mold allergy. She worries her 14-year-old son won’t be able to pursue his dream career as an NBA player due to long-lasting health effects of mold.
Branford Manor, which has 442 units in townhouse-style buildings, is also a HUD-subsidized property. It is run by the private company Related Management Company, which is based in New York City. Data from Ledge Light Health District’s complaint logs shows an increase in Branford Manor renters reporting mold issues in 2022, with 15 complaints on May 10 alone.
Another resident of Branford Manor, Christina Rotharmel, said she has mold growing inside of her pill bottle caps. She said she spent 29 days in Yale New Haven Hospital’s intensive care unit due to what she claims are respiratory issues linked to mold exposure. Rotharmel said she has pulmonary hypertension and other conditions that make her more at risk for mold reactions.
She finds herself “googling” her health symptoms such as her hand tremors and headaches to see if they are consistent with mold exposure symptoms. Oftentimes, she finds they are.
Mold exposure can become a “very serious health problem,” according to Carrie Redlich, a pulmonary and environmental physician from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. She said mold exposure can aggravate preexisting asthma in adults and is thought by many specialists to cause asthma in children.
The National Institutes of Health said the home environment “plays a role” in children developing asthma, and that often removing mold from homes improves children’s asthma.
Mold exposure can also lead to breathing difficulties, skin irritation, dizziness, and coughing, according to the state Department of Public Health. Redlich said people who are at most risk of reacting to mold are children and people with respiratory conditions and immune-compromising conditions.
Rotharmel said when she sent her primary physician a picture of the mold growing behind the cabinet in her kitchen, the doctor said “word-for-word” that if she “didn’t get out of there,” she was “going to die.”
However, Rotharmel could not permanently leave Branford Manor because she could not afford to move anywhere else. She contends the management uses tenants’ desperation for housing as leverage to discourage them from speaking up about mold.
“I feel threatened,” Rotharmel said about the management at Branford Manor. “If you don’t do what they say, you get an eviction notice. They hold all the cards.”
Rotharmel said she did not report her mold at the peak of the problem because she was focused on managing her health issues with doctors. She also said it “took a lot of courage” to speak up about Branford Manor.
Tenants united over mold
After joining the Branford Manor tenants’ union and speaking up about mold, Tejeda and her sons have been worried about eviction. She did not want reporters to visit her apartment during business hours in case Branford Manor’s management saw on the security cameras.
“Every time I see a notice taped on my door, I panic that it could be an eviction,” said Tejeda. “If I lose my home, me and my kids, we’re in the streets.”
Tejeda and her family have lived in a homeless shelter in the Bronx, N.Y., and she doesn't want her children to experience that again. Breaking down in tears, Tejeda said she never wanted her sons to face these “adult problems'' during their childhood.
“I moved to Branford to give them a better life,” Tejeda said. “As a New Yorker, you have no choice but to grow up fast. I didn’t want that for them. But now I’m in a situation where I’m wondering, ‘Did I make the right choice?’ Because they are getting sick.”
Tejeda said the management at Branford Manor has had limited and condescending communication regarding her situation.
When Tejada had complained about mold in the past, she said management workers told her Branford Manor was a “starter home,” and she shouldn’t be complaining. After months of complaining about mold, she said Branford Manor moved her family into a hotel with three hours notice.
Tejeda said she received a call from her lawyer on July 8 that Branford Manor was moving her family to Hampton Inn in Groton. She packed for her three sons but did not have enough time to pack clothes for herself. Branford Manor told Tejeda’s lawyer they were taking that time to remediate the mold in her basement.
When Tejeda complained about her family living in a hotel room for weeks this past summer, she said management told her, “This is a vacation for you.”
“The health and safety of residents continues to be our top priority as we work to rectify the issues raised at Branford Manor,” a spokesperson for Branford Manor Apartments wrote via email in July. “We appreciate residents’ patience and cooperation during this time.”
While living in the hotel, Tejeda said her sons did not experience the mold exposure symptoms they had in Branford Manor. She said she visited her apartment while living in the hotel and the smell of the mold was so intense that she began having chest pains.
The family has since moved back into their apartment, but Tejeda, reached by phone this past week, said the mold problem has not been resolved.
Candles to mask mold odor
Hayden cleans the mold in his shower vent once a month. Tejeda said she uses tropical-scented wall plugs to cover the smell of mold in her apartment, and uses mosquito nets in the door frames during the summer so she can keep the doors open to increase ventilation. Rotharmel scrubs the mold that she finds in her apartment with bleach.
Barbara Templin, who lives two floors above Hayden in the Williams Park apartments, said sewage leaked onto her living room ceiling. She said she masks the smells of sewage and mold by placing a mint eucalyptus candle under the leak.
Although Hayden, Tejeda, Rotharmel, and Templin feel unhealthy from the living situations they are in, they said they work to make their apartments “home.”
Both Tejeda and Hayden said they viewed their affordable housing apartments as a “blessing.” However, Hayden says he no longer thinks this way after his health issues from mold and mistreatment of management.
“I am sad living here. I'm grateful for the affordable roof over my head, but I feel I'm paying for it in ways other than money,” Hayden wrote in a letter reporting abuse in Williams Park Apartments. He wrote this letter with hope that someone would read his story and help him leave his living situation. He sent the letter to HUD and Williams Park Apartments, and posted it on Twitter.
Until someone responds to his letter, Hayden said he will continue to line the clumps of mold along the rim of his bathroom sink.
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