Ratty shape of public housing impels activist

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Ashley Mathews went to wake her kids for school when she noticed a bug crawling on her 9-year-old’s leg.

This wasn’t just any creepy crawler, but a bed bug that had bitten him enough to draw blood, leaving the mattress cover stained in red dots.

This wasn’t the first time she has had to deal with this problem at her mother’s Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority apartment in the Kenfield Homes on Buffalo’s East Side.

“I am past frustrated. Once I get aggravated it’s on,” Mathews said.

News 4 Investigates discovered through a Freedom of Information law request that infestations continue to be a serious problem for the BMHA, whose mission is to “assist our residents in attaining and maintaining a high standard for their quality of life.”

The documents show that HUD inspectors last year found 10 of the 15 developments they checked had infestations.

In addition, the federal inspection reports expose other unsafe and unhealthy conditions for some of the 10,000 residents of the 28 housing developments managed by the BMHA.

Eight of the 15 developments inspected last year failed for a host of interior and exterior health and safety deficiencies, including mold, exposed electrical wires, holes in walls and ceilings and blocked or unusable fire exits.

For example, one resident at Kenfield Homes gets a foot of water in her kitchen during a hard rain because of a hole in the window frame.

Another woman living in a Commodore Perry Homes apartment has had for several years a leak in her ceiling, which has developed mold that she says is making her son sick.

Nate Boyd, a community activist, highlights many pleas from tenants on his Facebook page, a thorn in the side of local leaders whom he accuses of glossing over the problems with hollow promises.

“It’s horrendous, it’s tragic, it’s inhuman,” Boyd said of some of the living conditions he has recorded.

“It goes back to maintenance, and who’s doing the hiring?”  

BMHA Executive Director Gillian Brown agreed that the BMHA needs to improve the living conditions for many of its residents. He said the problems are a symptom of being underfunded by the federal government.

“We need to do better on maintenance and there is no question,” Brown said.

“I mean, it’s indefensible. There’s not a lot I can say about the conditions in some of the developments.”

Problems persist

Whenever Cheryl Donohue grabs something from her fridge, she sees the huge hole in her ceiling that exposes the mold, plumbing and water stained wood beams.

Both she and her son, Curtis, live in the Commodore Perry Homes development. They are sick with chronic bronchitis, asthma, headaches and chronic sinus infections, which they believe is caused by the mold.

“You can smell the mold in the house,” Donohue said.

“It’s just been an ongoing issue. Over the last several years of me calling in for a leak that they just keep covering up instead of actually fixing, they tell me it’s fixed, however, every time they close my ceiling and wall up, it reopens.”

The BMHA has one plumber left on staff and often has to contract out for plumbers. Brown said the BMHA is understaffed, with less than a third of the employees it had two decades ago.

“I have to deal with the cards I have,” Brown said, “and right now I don’t have the budget to go out on a hiring blitz and hire 50 people.”

Ryan C. Johnsen is an attorney with HoganWillig who felt compelled to help Donohue.

In October, he filed a notice of claim against the BMHA. BMHA ignored the claim, so in January he filed a lawsuit that accuses the agency of failing to repair the leak and remove the mold.

“That’s the one thing that’s really frustrating with this case is BMHA has come in and done inspections,” Johnsen said.

“Gillian Brown has articulated about Cheryl’s conditions and the situation she’s in and has made some empty promises and it’s about time these things get fixed.”

Brown, who didn’t want to discuss this specific case, said not all mold is toxic.

“If we get a report from a doctor, if we get a report from a government agency that says this is some sort of toxic condition, of course we’ll fix it,” Brown said.

At Kenfield homes, Venecia Mason, a pregnant mother of two, dreads the rain.

That’s because her entire kitchen floor floods with at least a foot of water from what appears to be a hole in a window frame. A video she recorded in her apartment shows water gushing out from the window frame, flooding the floor.

“[BMHA] came out maybe two days after and he put some tape on it, but after that they never came out and fixed anything and they never tried to move me,” a frustrated Mason said.

Mason said now her basement is flooded by a clogged sewer. The smell wafts through her apartment, which she shares with a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. 

“I am trying to force them to move me,” she said.

Brown said sewer lines get jammed “with some regularity,” at BMHA properties.  He linked the problem to the age of the developments and a lot of “deferred maintenance.”   

“And we’re trying to dig out of it,” he said.

“Exterior conditions at some of the sites are abysmal. Interior conditions at some of the sites are abysmal. We’re working through them and it’s a process.”  

Infestations

Infestations are another serious problem for some BMHA properties.

Bonnie Hawkins, a resident of the Perry projects, said she has no clue how bed bugs got into her small apartment. The problem got so bad that one of her arms is scarred with bed bug bites.

She said BMHA sent someone over to exterminate, but they didn’t spray her entire apartment or her neighbors.

“It’s driving me crazy,” she said. “That’s why I called Nate Boyd.”

Boyd, 58, is a commercial contractor by trade who switches to community activist as soon as he gets a complaint from a BMHA resident. He shows up to the resident’s apartment, listens to the complaints, observes the situation and takes it all live on Facebook.

Boyd said he comes across infestations weekly.

For example, in one Jasper-Parish apartment where a blind woman lives, Boyd found a massive roach infestation. He worried that the woman was unknowingly eating food contaminated by the disease-spreading insect. Boyd found roaches in a closet, kitchen sink and hiding inside a smoke detector.

In the bathroom, he found mold that looked like it had been painted over.

“I know it’s embarrassing,” Boyd tells the resident’s father during one of his Facebook live videos.

“But I appreciate that you could let us see this because you ain’t got no reason to be living like this.”

Boyd takes on BMHA

On several occasions, Boyd’s activism has gotten residents moved to a different apartment or BMHA would send a maintenance crew to fix the problem.

He now gets calls daily from residents with a host of problems.

“Listen, people everywhere know Nate Boyd Facebook live,” Boyd said.

“I know BMHA watches every video.”

But Brown, BMHA’s executive director, said he has issues with Boyd’s “style of advocacy.”

“When I see someone striking fear in people for no reason, with no scientific basis, I don’t think it’s responsible.”

Boyd disagreed.

“Would you fear it every night if you had to come home and worry about rodents?” he said

“Would you fear it if you laid down in your bed and you were getting bit and you thought in your mind it was just your imagination? Are we just imagining these things, all these infestations – bed bugs, roaches, the rat?”

Regardless, Brown said 2019 must be a year of action for the BMHA.

“All I can do is try,” he said. “I have a genuine interest in trying to make things better.”

Meanwhile, some residents told News 4 that they have heard these promises before.

“We’re not going to take this laying down any longer,” said John Williams, the tenant council president for Commodore Perry.

“We have communities tired of the nonsense. All we want to know is what’s going on. Don’t tell us everything in legal jargon. Come talk to us at the table, be honest with us.”

Donohue, who filed the lawsuit against the BMHA, said she wants the leak fixed in her apartment, the mold removed and the ceiling repaired, or move her family to a safer place.

“Stop just putting a Band-Aid over it,” Donohue said, “because that’s all they’ve done these last couple of years.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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