A mold problem in the basement of the Windmill Village II housing project on Accabonac Road has created a rift between tenants and management.
In May, the residents, all older than 62, were told to pack up their stored belongings in plastic containers by the beginning of July to keep the mold at bay. If they failed to do so, their possessions would be thrown out.
Amid the kerfuffle, the residents, of their own volition, voted in a new tenant representative to deal with the housing board that oversees the development. Not recognizing the tenants’ choice, except to let the rep attend one board meeting, housing board members decided that they wanted to appoint their own tenant representative instead.
Some residents said the board is ruling with an iron fist—but Michael DeSario, the board’s president, said he and his colleagues are just trying to do what is best for the residents: keeping Windmill Village II a safe, clean and healthy community for low-income families.
According to Mr. DeSario, the mold problem started during Windmill Village II’s construction eight years ago, when Sheetrock was put on the basement ceiling in order to meet fire code requirements. Over time, water from plumbing built up and trickled down into the Sheetrock, he said. About three years ago, the board decided to spend more than $80,000 to take down the Sheetrock and take care of the mold problem.
Unfortunately, a tenant complained to management in the winter that she was having a difficult time breathing. After more investigation, management determined the mold had resurfaced, and the tenants’ belongings in storage were harboring it.
“We looked and saw that people still had upholstered furniture down there, and clothing, and we said, ‘No, this is conducive to growing mold,’” Mr. DeSario said. “Management said they didn’t want anything in the basement, and the tenants had a fit. It’s understandable.”
According to the residents’ choice for tenant representative, J.Z. Holden, managers Kathy Byrnes and Gerry Mooney went door to door notifying tenants they had 10 days to remove their belongings. Outraged, the tenants threw together a quick meeting with Mr. Mooney that nearly 30 people attended, according to Ms. Holden. She said people were yelling.
Mr. DeSario said the board listened to their complaints and decided that even though there is no provision for storage in the basement in residents’ leases, the board would allow them to continue to keep their things in the basement as long as they are stored in plastic bins. Their deadline to pack it all up was extended into July.
Ms. Holden contacted the Bridgehampton Kmart for help and received 20 plastic bins for some of the residents who were unable to afford or physically buy storage boxes. Still, residents were seeing red.
Lally Mockler, a longtime resident, said they have been put in a tough spot. “We’ve never had this where we’ve been given an ultimatum to clear out the cellar and we can’t use it anymore—even if we have all of our things out, the mold will still continue,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to deal with it, and I get the feeling that the board thinks it’s none of our business.”
Ms. Holden said management tried to get them to sign an agreement stating that their belongings were responsible for the mold and that the managers had the right to decide whether they were adequately packed and throw them away at residents’ expense.
“There is space under each apartment to coordinate with each apartment,” she said. “It’s always been part of the way things have been handled, but management feels this is a privilege.”
Mr. DeSario said that for each 600-square-foot apartment there is space for storage, but that there is nothing in the lease about the tenants’ right to use it. He said if they seal everything up and essentially get rid of some of the items in storage, they can start mold abatement again.
“I don’t want to have to be the mold inspector all the time,” he said. “There has to be one rule that applies to everybody.”
Ms. Holden said the tenants hired attorney Tom Horn, who will help them work things out with the board pro bono. In the meantime, Ms. Holden said she is concerned that the board and Mr. DeSario are ruling with an “iron fist” because they want to choose their own tenant representative.
“This gives full control to the board that gives tenants no control at all in what happens to them,” she said, adding that she had 31 of the 47 residents sign a petition stating they reserved the right to choose their own representative.
Mr. DeSario said that the board, which is a nonprofit organization, plans to appoint its own representative, who will “give insight to any issues and insight to how tenants feel.” The board also oversees the Windmill Village I just down the street and the St. Michael’s housing project in Amagansett.
“We should have the same goals as the tenants—it’s not like we make money from this. It’s not like, let’s see how to screw the tenants,” he said. “They’ve got to recognize that we want to listen to the tenants and be responsive, but a lot of people don’t know the full story. A tenant might not understand the issues and how they affect all the residents. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t make everybody happy no matter what you do.”