The air around Westlake Apartments was thick with the scent of pine cleaner, bleach and mold this week as residents worked to salvage what they could and make their soggy homes as comfortable as possible.
Several feet of water inundated the federally subsidized Section 8 complex in Savannah during Hurricane Matthew between Friday, Oct. 7 and Saturday, Oct. 8. When the deluge subsided, residents said the apartment managers told them to mop up with bleach and crack a window.
Theresa Goldwire returned to her apartment Monday and found almost everything sopping wet and smelling sour.
“They didn’t say they were going to do anything to clean up. They just said be patient,” Goldwire said. “I’m going to stay with family as long as I can because I’m concerned about mold. I have three kids. But a lot of people don’t have a choice. They’re staying.”
“Unquestionably, the renters are not responsible for mopping and bleaching,” said Jereon Brown, Housing and Urban Development’s general deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs in Washington, DC. “That is unacceptable… Replacing drywall and ventilation are part of the process.”
Brown said the owners, The Aspen Company/Treetop Development, were contacted Thursday and were fully apprised of the situation. He said they had dispatched flood recovery specialists to the complex, which is tucked away in the corner of the Lamarville neighborhood just off ACL Boulevard. If they weren’t there already, they’d be on site by Friday, he said.
The owners told Brown’s office that they had not been available Tuesday and Wednesday because of Yom Kippur, an important Jewish holiday that typically involves refraining from work.
“They have disaster, flood, experience with Superstorm Sandy, so they’re familiar with the repairs necessary after flooding has occurred,” Brown said. “HUD will also deploy a disaster response team to the site to ensure the proper repairs are planned.”
By noon Thursday, five days after the storm, the only visible work crews on site were mowing the lawns.
But Caroline Bligh, an Aspen/Treetop spokeswoman, said residents would get action and answers sometime Thursday. Company officials were at the complex assessing damage and working to finalize a repair agreement with contractors, she said. The property manager would also be informing residents about available Red Cross and FEMA resources as well as the timeframe and extent of their cleanup effort.
″…We are taking immediate, significant steps to ensure that all damage at the property caused by Hurricane Matthew is quickly repaired, while stringently abiding by all of FEMA’s guidelines,” Bligh said in an email statement. ”…We are also assessing, on a case-by-case basis, whether any of our residents will need to be relocated while this work takes place. If it is determined that any of our residents do need be relocated, we will notify them on an individual basis, and will ensure they are accommodated.”
Anxious residents said they were still waiting to hear from officials Thursday afternoon. Many lacked the means to go elsewhere so they were doing their best to make their homes habitable, despite worries about potential health and safety hazards.
“We don’t know if it’s safe to stay here. We don’t know if they’re going to come in and tear out where the floors and walls are wet. And if they do, we don’t know if we’re supposed to stay here while they do it. I mean, where would we go?” resident Latoya Harden said, “Look at this black spot in the closet. That wasn’t there before the hurricane. I have a 5-month-old and my 3-year-old has sickle cell. He gets sick easily; just a little scratch that gets infected will make him sick. I spent all I had on cleaning supplies and look at this place. There has to be bacteria and mold. You can still smell it even after all that cleaning.”
Three days after Hurricane Matthew ripped through Savannah, the dark brown floodwater had subsided and Westlake residents began piling drenched bedding, mattresses, rugs and couches in and around dumpsters. Wet clothes were hanging over fences to dry, and families were in and out of their units with buckets, mops and rags. Their losses were particularly devastating.
People who live in subsidized housing can’t afford renter’s insurance, they said. They also have few options for quality cleanup or securing better living conditions.
Some people literally lost everything. Their most expensive possessions – mattresses, couches, electronics, blankets, winter coats, frilly Easter dresses and cases of diapers were tossed in Dumpsters and heaped in sopping piles beside their apartment doors.
Earl Gardner, who did not evacuate, said he watched the dirty water as it seeped under his front door. “I saw it coming in under the doorway, and I moved everything I could lift upstairs,” he said as he patted the head of a toddler playing in his apartment. “The bottom half of the couch is still a little damp, but we were lucky.”
He pointed to water-stained furniture and toys that were piled up next door.
Some residents said there was no use in demanding that the owners replace soggy drywall, pull up flooring and bring in professional cleanup crews. Past issues with maintenance were not properly handled, they complained, and they had no idea who to call.
City officials say Westlake is located in the county. Fifth District County Commissioner Yusuf Shabazz, who represents the area, called television crews to film him and city officials walk through the post-flood mess. He said he has protested conditions and held press conferences about Westlake Apartments in the past, but no one knows exactly who should take responsibility for the conditions there.
“It has been a problem for some time,” Shabazz said. “No one seems to know who the owner is so we protested HUD because these are Section 8 rentals. But the property manager tells them the problems aren’t that bad. They ask for time to clean it up and they just put a band aid on it.”
Shabazz argued that it is too easy for low-income housing owners to hide behind management companies and ignore the needs of their tenants.
“They have a blatant disregard for our community,” Shabazz said. “Westlake is deplorable. It’s like a third world country. What I saw there is no different than the post-flood conditions in Haiti.”
Chatham County Health Department Spokesman Sally Silberman said issues with mold and air quality in flooded apartments tend to fall through the cracks because state and local laws primarily deal with restaurants and public facilities. Although the Health Department warns the public not to go into floodwater because of bacteria, they don’t tell renters what to do if it comes into their homes.
“There is no real clear rule about moisture and mold,” she said. “It doesn’t fall anywhere. The Georgia Department of Public Health says that indoor air quality is not a regulated program.”
Getting immediate answers about the Westlake Apartments is even more difficult because ownership and management has changed multiple times.
According to Chatham County Board of Assessors records, the property was owned by Savannah developer Ed Feiler in 1972, and then sold to Westlake Apartments Association in 1974. They sold it to Westlake Housing Limited in 1984, who sold it to Westlake Apartments LLC in 2006. In 2015 it was purchased by Westlake Holdings LLC.
Georgia Secretary of State spokeswoman Candice Broce said the names of the business owners of a limited liability company, or LLC, aren’t always registered with the Secretary of State’s office.
“We don’t have ownership information unless it is voluntarily provided,” Broce said. “The enforcement side is not our jurisdiction.”
A Savannah Morning News investigation determined that the current owners of Westlake Apartments, Westlake Holdings, LLC, is a New Jersey-based company called The Aspen Company, which is a subsidiary of a larger company called Treetop Development.
Treetop’s website says, “Our philosophy is to identify emerging neighborhoods and create signature residential properties that redefine and move communities forward.”
Adam Mermelstein is listed as a managing member who oversees all management of the company, which owns properties in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
All six of the properties it owns in Georgia are Section 8 rentals in low-income and high-crime areas – Westlake Apartments in Savannah, River Glen Apartments in Augusta, Ramona Apartments in Vidalia, Paradise East Apartments in Atlanta, Paradise Carrolton Apartments in Carrolton, and Linwood Apartments in Gainesville.
Aspen/Treetop has only owned Westlake for 10 months. Bligh, the company’s spokeswoman, said they are working to make things right for Westlake renters.
Meanwhile, as Westlake owners prioritized their cleanup effort, 7-year-old Theron Goldwire was salvaging what he could. He walked up to the Dumpster in the middle of the Westlake Apartment complex parking lot and put the last of his soggy belongings in with the collection of mattresses, couches and toys.
“I prayed to God so the water won’t come back and mess up nothing else,” he said.
Communities in Schools of Savannah has organized a clothing and assistance drive for students and families living in the Westlake Apartments and other parts of the city.
The Kids Closet Drive is collecting everything from school supplies and personal care items to uniforms and clothing. The items will be distributed to Haven Elementary School students first. Excess will be distributed at DeRenne Middle, Myers Middle and Beach High schools.
Haven Elementary School uniforms: Youth Sizes, S, M, L, XL Haven Elementary serves K-5 students as well as school supplies
DeRenne Middle School uniforms: Sizes S, M, L, XL as well as school supplies for grades 6-8
The UPS Store #6029 (in Shopping Center @ Victory/Skidaway) 2126 East Victory Drive #167, Savannah, 31404
Financial donations can be made online at www.cissavannah.org. Checks and money orders payable to Communities in Schools of Savannah can be mailed to 2126 East Victory Drive #167, Savannah, GA 31404.