By Rick Murphy
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A group of senior citizens who live in affordable apartments in Springs are preparing to sue officials over a mold problem they say is making them sick.
Windmill Village II, which is owned by an LLC run by a board of directors and under the auspices of the Town of East Hampton Office of Housing And Community Development, has been plagued with the problem for years. But while officials say it is confined to the basement and has been professionally cleared up, residents say cleanups have been ineffective and their health woes are mounting.
The Housing Office administers federal funds (housing and urban development subsidies) that are paid to Windmill to make the apartments affordable for almost all of the seniors who live in the 47 units, spread out over eight buildings.
Last week Eleanor Cobb, a former resident who moved out of her apartment after being warned by her doctors, hired Frank L. Pellegrini, a lawyer with the Manhattan-based firm Pellegrini & Associates, to represent her in an action she intends to file against everyone concerned. More tenants are meeting with Pellegrini this week. They say they have had enough.
"Tenants have a right, a warranty of inhabitability. If they are in danger, that is a breach, and it is a serious offense," Pellegrini said.
Cobb said that earlier this year she began feeling ill and noticed her hair falling out. "I went downstairs and saw the mold." On three occasions, eye doctors from Peconic Ophalmology warned her in writing to leave her apartment, number 33 in Building 15. Doctor Louis Pizzarello wrote, "She cannot enter her apartment" and stated it "is hazardous to her health."
On July 26, 2013 Kathleen M. Restivo, a Lake Success doctor wrote that Cobb had to be vacated from her apartment. "She is short of breath . . . she has a sore . . . she is recently losing her hair . . . the mold is being vented directly up under her air conditioner. It would be a shame to have her succumb to an environmental hazard."
The reason Cobb needed documentation is because all of the renters signed a lease stating that the apartments were their primary residences — if they left, not only would their federal assistance end, but they would not have their leases renewed. They were, in essence trapped in the mold-infected dwellings.
Though Cobb was allowed to move, Joan Holden, the tenant's representative, said many others should have been vacated at the time. East Hampton Town was about to open a brand new affordable senior citizen facility in Amagansett named St. Michael's, but filled it with new renters rather than invite Windmill II residents there. Holden maintained Windmill LLC, which also runs St. Michael's in Amagansett, didn't do so because they would were afraid they wouldn't be able to rent the Windmill units again given the mold problem.
Helen Miley, in Building 3, apartment 14, felt sick and rundown. "I'm always sick. I'm choking. I can't breath," she related. "I went into the city and it cleared up. I came back again and it started again."
Holden developed allergies, then arthritis and asthma.
Director of Town of East Hampton Office of Housing and Community Development Tom Ruhle acknowledged that there's been a recurring mold problem at Windmill II dating back for years, but says the Windmill board has worked diligently each time to address it, though in 2009 Ruhle's office withheld $150,000 in HUD funds from Windmill until the matter was adequately addressed – Windmill said it spent $85,000 to eradicate the mold.
"I'd like to know where it went," said Richard Warmay, a sheet rocker by trade. "They have never supplied documentation of any kind."
"We brought in two mold specialists to give us their opinions. They claim that there is no indication that $85,000 worth of work was done on the basement. They then explained what needed to be done now, as well as what should have been done, but wasn't," Holden said.
Michael DiSario, the chairman of the Windmill II LLC board, said when the problem reared up again last summer Insight Environmental was hired to help to manage the cleanup and conduct testing. He said his board is determined to clean the problem up and make the tenants happy.
"Yes, there is a mold problem, but it is not the serious kind," Ruhle said. Water leaks had contaminated the sheetrock basement ceilings and caused mildew. To combat the problem, the residents were ordered to remove all their belongings from the basements. The affected sheet rock was then ripped down, and a solution of bleach and water sprayed. Ruhle and DiSario said the mold has not spread into the apartments, though there is visual evidence to refute that, at least in two apartments inspected by The Independent.
Miley, who lives in Building 3, apartment 14, stands ready with a half-gallon bottle of bleach. Every morning she wipes down the black-colored mold on her heat vents, and wipes up the mold seeping from beneath the floor trim. It is visible on the door. "It's all over." Miley said she was in good health when she moved into the complex. "Now I'm always sick. I can't breath. I wake up choking." Holden said she told the powers-that-be. "They didn't care. They did nothing."
Several residents hired Mildew Busters in Shelter Island to take samples from the basements last August. The results came back from Pro-Lab in Weston, Florida, and they were frightening.
"These numbers are off the charts," said Bill Smith, who runs Mildew Busters. In Holden's apartment, number 29, the counts of penicillium/Aspergillus spores were pegged at 720,800 per cubic meter. "These building are full of it, and these people are getting really sick," Smith said. "They are trapped. It's in the wiring, the heating system, the walls, everywhere," he guessed.
"These aren't the bad kinds of mold," Ruhle said. "They were caused by mildew. It's not Black Mold."
The tenants elected Holden to be the tenant representative, but said Windmill didn't recognize her standing and wanted to appoint a tenant's rep of their choosing.
Tom Horn, an East Hampton attorney, offered to help pro-bono. "The tenants can organize and choose anyone they want to represent them," he said. Horn said he felt the Windmill managers, "deliberately scared the tenants."
Though several said they were afraid of being evicted, Gerry Mooney, the co-manager of the facility, a paid position, said. "Only one tenant has been dispossess in 21 years. We're in the housing business."
DiSario said, "More than one person" wanted to be tenant rep and that although Holden wasn't allowed to speak at one meeting, she was given free rein at two others.
"We had two meetings where the tenants could speak about whatever they wanted," said Mooney. "There are a lot of strong personalities. We were trying to get the flavor of the whole." Ruhle said he "regretted' the way the Holden matter was handled.
DiSario said the board and staff are working aggressively to clean up the problem for good. He said water leaks contaminated some of the sheetrock on the basement ceiling, but that damaged parts have been removed. "When we take the sheetrock down there won't be any mold left."
Ruhle said the long-term goal is to put sprinkler systems in all the buildings. "The sprinklers will allow the basements to again be used for storage by the tenants of things like clothes, furniture and papers that are flammable."
Aspergillus and Penicillium are the same size and shape, so these are often reported as Penicillium/Aspergillus. High levels can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems and exacerbate a number of existing symptoms, though healthy individuals might not be adversely affected in the short term.
According to the American Thoracic Society Aspergillosis is an infection caused by Aspergillus and is now the leading cause of death due to invasive fungal infections in the United States among people with weakened immune systems.