On paper, she’s a potential litigant — one of many across the country taking legal action against landlord Global Ministries Foundation and real estate conglomerate Millennia Housing Management.
But standing in front of her South Florida apartment in a low-income housing project in Riviera Beach, Nikita Felder-Davis is a woman asking the courts to take a closer look.
That’s been the hardest part, Felder-Davis and other residents say — getting officials to pay attention to Stonybrook, a sprawling apartment complex just north of a row of multimillion-dollar mansions in affluent Palm Beach County.
Her 4-year-old son returned from his latest rounds of medical visits this month, diagnosed with asthma and other breathing ailments linked to six types of mold, mouse urine, animal dander and other air-borne mire. The child was scheduled for surgery Thursday to remove his tonsils and adenoids, enlarged from fighting foreign matter in his body. Before that, an abscess under his ear kept him hospitalized for five days.
“Your average antibodies in your body should be like 600. He’s at over 2,500,” Felder-Davis said. “I … moved here when he was a year old, so this is the only place that he could’ve been exposed to all the different things he’s been exposed to.”
The first sign that something was wrong: a persistent odor coming from the air vents.
A few doors away, neighbor Olivia Monday cradled a newborn in an apartment where black mold framed the bathroom wall.
“It wasn’t in good condition, but I was desperate for somewhere to go,” said Monday, a single mother of 10 living in a three-bedroom apartment subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “I can’t afford nowhere else to go.”
One of her sons was hospitalized for a week due to a mold-related blood illness — the latest in a series of instances prompting Monday and other residents to turn to the judicial system and file a motion for preliminary injunction in Palm Beach Circuit Court.
The goal is to force Stonybrook’s owner Global Ministries Foundation, its current managing company Millennia Housing Management and the city of Riviera Beach to move residents from what they say is an “extreme risk to health and safety” and find them alternative housing.
“The people that live here … they’re not bending over to it. They’re actually trying to proactively do something for themselves. And that’s uncommon for folks of lesser means than average,” said Malik Leigh, the South Florida attorney representing Stonybrook’s tenants. “They’re not letting this happen. They’re not letting it go.”
‘Unsafe For Human Occupancy’
But court filings paint a dreary picture.
In July, Riviera Beach building code official Ladi March-Goldwire marked 36 apartments, including Monday’s, with orange tags indicating hazardous conditions.
“DANGEROUS,” the tags read. “This building is deemed unsafe for human occupancy.”
Over three site visits that month, the inspector placed signs on dozens of doors but expressed concern for “all of the units located on the property,” where residents complain of widespread black mold, leaking water, collapsed ceilings, faulty fire alarms and malfunctioning air conditioning units.
“There are imminent dangers present to the life, safety and general welfare of residents,” March-Goldwire wrote in a July 20 memo to Riviera Beach officials. “As a result, all precautions to safeguard the occupants is paramount.”
Read March-Goldwire’s memo:
Property owner GMF did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Millennia denied claims of hazardous conditions.
“It is Millennia’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. However, we deny the allegations raised in the motion for preliminary injunction,” the company said in a statement. “As a rule, Millennia strives to ensure residents are provided with safe and sanitary housing at all properties owned or managed by the company across the country.”
GMF is a Cordova, Tennessee-based evangelical nonprofit founded by Richard Hamlet. It purchased the Palm Beach County property for $12.2 million in 2012.
Built in 1972, Stonybrook was established as a low-income residential development from the outset with tenants using government subsidies. It features 216 apartments on nearly 9 acres running along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Two- and three-bedroom units rent for $856 and $1,018, respectively, according to its website, but residents pay about 30 percent of their household’s combined adjusted income. For many tenants, their portion of the rent works out to about $200 to $400 a month after government vouchers.
When asked about Leigh’s motion as well as the general conditions at Stonybrook, Gloria Shanahan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional spokesperson said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Now, GMF is in the process of trading the property to Millennia for an undisclosed sum as part of a national deal. In December 2016, Memphis news station WREG reported Millennia was negotiating the acquisition of GMF properties around the country. Then in a January 2017 internal memo, GMF discussed plans to divest 37 of its HUD-assisted properties to Millennia to settle outstanding debts. Millennia remains the management company while the deal is pending.
“We look forward to acquiring the property from GMF in the near future, closing on construction financing and commencing on a renovation that will make residents proud to call Stonybrook home,” said the company’s statement to the Daily Business Review. “Additionally, we look forward to actively working with the city as it reviews Millennia’s renovation plans for the property.”
This could be good news for residents, as the property would need an upgrade to continue to participate in the public housing program.
HUD spokesperson Shanahan said that in order to transfer ownership benefits, HUD requires “the full rehabilitation of all units at each of these properties.”
“At HUD’s insistence, Global Ministries Foundation’s portfolio of 30-plus properties with a HUD rental subsidy contract is being sold to a new owner willing to improve their conditions,” she said. “This work starts as soon as the sale is made for each of the properties. … Each closing requires specific financial agreements that also involve approval and in many cases funding from the local communities where they are located.”
But the sale might be in jeopardy as lawsuits loom in at least four states, drawing negative publicity.
In September, more bad PR, as a video on social media showed Florida firefighters forced to knock on doors to inform residents of a blaze. The video captured several tenants saying their fire alarms were defective and they were unaware there was a fire before emergency services arrived.
Then on Nov. 15, Leigh’s expert conducted a mold test that uncovered several molds within inhabited apartments including Monday’s. He confirmed the presence of several types of mold, including stachybotrys, described in the motion for preliminary injunction as “the most toxic and dangerous of molds to exist in a home.”
Leigh said the findings fly in the face of claims to the contrary by Millennia, which had asserted the efficacy of its remedial efforts. He alleged Millennia continued to mismanage the property and misrepresented its efforts to address code violations. A July 2018 video uploaded to YouTube by the attorney allegedly shows a mold remover employed by the management company admitting to not having a license to do the work. Attorneys for the residents say treating mold without proper accreditation is a felony under Florida Statute 468.8419. They also claim the findings and allegedly unaccredited remediation work contradict an Aug. 29 magistrate order, which relied on information from Millenia to allow Stonybrook residents to return to their previously tagged homes.
Although the order said that building inspectors would return to the property to ensure their continual upkeep, Leigh said no one from the city visited until the results of the most recent mold test were publicized.
“My initial reaction was ‘Man, this place has been neglected,’” said Nikhil Maisuria, the mold assessor from Hollywood-based indoor air quality testing company Air-Mazing, which inspected Monday’s and other residents’ Stonybrook apartments at their attorneys’ request. ”I’ve seen the full spectrum when it comes to mold and contamination. And yeah, this is definitely something.”
No Clear Legal Claim
But four months after March-Goldwire’s inspection and report to city officials, tenants, like Monday and her family of ten, continue to reside at Stonybrook. And it appears they have a long road ahead in light of Palm Beach Circuit Judge Howard K. Coates Jr.’s denial of their motion for an ex parte temporary injunction.
The judge found that the pleading — although rife with vivid descriptions of the alleged squalor — fell short of proving the situation at Stonybrook was an emergency worthy of immediate relief.
“It is unverified and fails to contain the necessary certifications,” Coates ruled.
This means residents must now revisit their court pleadings. Their counsel, Leigh, said a formalized complaint is forthcoming by early next year. In the meantime, the attorney is monitoring Millennia’s actions on the property.
Residents say the latest test results offer new proof of the danger at Stonybrook, which for 16 years operated “without proper licensing to fully function as an apartment complex,” according to the motion.
Their filing accuses Riviera Beach of knowingly allowing the Stonybrook operators to do business in the city for about 16 years without proper accreditation, “adding to its own culpability for the deterioration in health of so many residents.”
No city official or staffer, including March-Goldwire, responded to multiple requests for comment.
“They neglected this place for so many years, and it’s sad that it took so long … for somebody to step in and to help us out,” Stonybrook resident Felder-Davis said.
She and others have pinned their hopes on their attorneys, but appear to have little faith in their landlord.
“I’ve heard so many different people … are supposed to do this and do that, but things haven’t happened,” she said. “Let it happen first, and then I’ll be excited.”