A week after Louissita Chery brought her newborn baby home, he started to have trouble breathing. She rushed him to the hospital where he would remain for a month with respiratory problems.
Over the next several months, her other son experienced an uptick in asthma attacks, each one more severe than the one before. One of her daughters also complained she had trouble breathing.
Chery, a single mom of seven, believes the culprit behind her kids getting sick was the black mold-like substance growing on the ceilings and walls of her Gwen Cherry apartment where she lived for just under two years. The public housing site is owned by Miami-Dade County.
“I didn’t want to complain so much because I didn’t want to get kicked out,” she said.
Mold is not uncommon in public and private housing throughout South Florida, but for low income renters who can’t afford to move out or wage costly court battles against their landlords to fix the problem, that could mean living with the fungus, sometime for years.
After visits to emergency rooms and doctors' offices, Chery started to complain more. She said she’d speak to her site manager about the issue, but received no relief.
This past December, after threatening to call the media to broadcast her apartment’s conditions, Chery said her family was moved temporarily to a hotel by the county for three weeks. Then the county paid movers to relocate her family to the Liberty Square housing project.
Miami-Dade County housing director Michael Liu said workers found very small traces of mold near window air conditioning units Chery had installed without approval, but stopped short of acknowledging a pervasive mold problem.
“What we found was possible mold, but very slight,” he said.
Liu said that Chery and her family were moved out of the apartment “out of concern for the alleged conditions of her children.”
For her part, Chery put mold as the reason in forms to the county requesting the move in December. Her family pediatrician noted Chery’s now 8-year old and 1-year old sons both have respiratory medical conditions that can be exacerbated by exposure to mold, according to the signed forms.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, indoor exposure to mold can increase respiratory problems in people with preexisting conditions and weakened immune systems. Mold can also trigger asthma and cause skin problems.
“This is part of the cycle of poverty. They end up getting sicker and sicker and sicker,” said Dr. Michelle Kirwan, a pediatrician with the Institute for Child & Family Health in Miami Gardens.
Kirwan said that she sees many patients, mostly women with children, who live in subsidized or public housing and have health problems due to mold exposure. She calls it a public health concern.
“This is something that needs to be addressed,” said Kirwan. “People feel like they're in silos and it's just them that it's happening to, but I've seen this in many patients. It’s just the real devastating stories are the ones where they can't get out.”
— Nadege C. Green (@NadegeGreen) April 14, 2017
At Gwen Cherry public housing, another resident says she also has a mold problem. Berniece Sanders, 21, lives directly upstairs from where Chery lived with her children. Sanders' living room and hallways are painted dark burgundy “to hide the mold,” she explained. With white or light colored walls the black dots were more apparent and “looked nasty.”
Sanders said that her bathroom would constantly leak, dripping into Chery’s downstairs apartment. She pointed to what appeared to be mold growing on her bathroom ceiling and walls. She said though she uses bleach and water to clean up the dark splotches several times a week, “It always comes back ."
One of the barriers to addressing tenants’ concerns about mold in public housing is communication, said Nejla Calvo, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, a nonprofit that often represents clients who live in public or subsidized housing.
“Tenants might walk into the site manager’s office and say, ‘I have mold in my unit. Please send somebody.’ If they don’t put it in writing it’s very hard to track that,” said Calvo.
There is a formal work order system to process maintenance work, but Calvo said many tenants express their requests through verbal communications.
From her experience, Calvo said mold-related requests are among the more difficult ones to have fixed even when the process is followed.
“I had a woman who has serious health conditions including respiratory illness. Her bedroom wall was completely covered in mold,” said Calvo. "Her site manager completely denied there was mold there."
Calvo visited the apartment and then wrote a letter to the housing department describing what she saw.
“Unfortunately, it took an attorney to get the attention of public housing officials to do another inspection,” she said. “They actually tore out a section of her wall and replaced it.”
Liu, the county’s housing director, said in general mold can be a problem, even in public housing.
“Most of our housing stock has outlived its 40-year usefulness, which is generally the lifecycle of this type of housing,” he said.
At the Gwen Cherry apartments where Chery was living, there was only one other written request dealing with mold last year, according to the county housing department.
Chery said she is thankful that Miami-Dade County moved her out of the apartment.
“My 1-year-old was sleeping in a playpen that had mold on it,” she said.
Now in the Liberty Square housing project, Chery said her children are in a cleaner environment. She doesn’t like the constant shootings that happen in the complex, but for now she says this is home until she can afford to move out of public housing.
But now she's dealing with another problem left over from the old apartment. Chery received a bill from the county for $1,345 for damages—missing security screens, painted walls and un-returned keys. She asked for a grievance hearing to plead her case.
“I shouldn’t be responsible because it was an emergency move,” she said.
The hearing was supposed to be about the damages to the apartment, but it also turned into a conversation about whether Chery actually had mold or not.
One county housing employee asked if Chery didn’t have a confirmed case of mold, “Why was she in a hotel?”
Another housing employee responded that her co-worker called their higher-ups in the housing department “because of the threats to go to the media.”
The panel upheld the charges. Chery will have to pay the county. She said she doesn’t have the money. If she can’t pay half up front, she could face eviction.
“My plans are just to call the shelters in Miami,” said Chery, "to see if they have room for me and my kids.”