Peggy Jo Dodson is short of breath. “This is supposed to be a place to retire,” she says, sitting on the edge of her small bed. Pressing a clear plastic nebulizer mask to her face, she breathes in as deeply as she can before saying, “We aren’t retiring here. We are fighting to survive here.”
For the last eight years, Peggy Jo has been a resident at Fair Oaks, a low-income retirement apartment complex in River Oaks owned by Fort Worth Housing Solutions (FWHS) and managed by RPM. Every day she takes four nebulizer treatments just to keep breathing. Above her head, no more than 6 feet away, is an air vent so covered in black mold that the vertical vent slats are no longer discernable from the black ductwork behind, making it look more like a hole than a vent. In between puffs from her oxygen mask, Peggy looks up at the black vent. “That’s why there are so many sick people here, because of that black mold. I know it is.”
Peggy takes a last lungful of nebulizer fog and sets her mask down.
“Before I came here, I was basically in good shape,” she said. “I could get around just fine. I could walk way down to Walmart.”
Now Peggy claims that it’s a struggle to get from the rear parking lot to the front door. “Do you know what it’s like to push a bunch of groceries along in a walker? Most of us have COPD, you know. I have to take six, seven breaks just to get to the front doors.”
All of Fair Oaks’ residents have button-shaped key fobs that will open the front door, and, in years past, the same key would open all of the back and stairwell doors too. Recently, these exterior doors have been locked, allowing the residents to exit but not reenter. Since there are only 16 parking spaces in the front of a complex that contains more than 70 units, most of the senior and disabled residents are forced to park behind the building and walk around to the front.
Peggy switches off her breathing machine, picks a key ring off the table, and rubs her thumb across the small gray fob. The A/C unit in Peggy’s room kicks on, pushing a puff of hot air out of the black-hole air vent.
“Things here just don’t make no damn sense,” Peggy says.
FWHS staff said they are unaware of any tenant or RPM reports of mold or suspected mold at this property.
Bobby White is a 68-year-old retired educator who has lived at Fair Oaks for 17 years. Complications from diabetes have cost him one leg and the toes on his other foot, leaving him wheelchair-bound. As Bobby steers his chair through his front door and around a tight corner, the sound of metal scraping against drywall is audible. Bobby jerks his chair to a stop, backs up, and pivots slightly in a herky-jerky way before making another go at the corner. Bits of paint flake off and some drywall dust streaks across the front of his chair.
Bobby laughs in a good-natured way, remarking, “I used to hit this leg on that corner,” shifting in his chair and indicating where his right leg once was, “but not anymore.”
Bobby’s left leg is another story. A tangle of scars and cuts and bruises stretches across his knee, indicating where his leg scrapes the wall with every turn.
After scraping his way through two more too-tight corners, Bobby comes to a stop beside his bed. On the table beside him, resting on a piece of scrap paper, is a tiny brown-black bedbug, curled up and dead. You can see them coming up out of the drains in the sinks and the bathtubs, other residents have said. Don’t sit on any of that furniture in the lobby, I was warned. They’re there, too. One resident puts strips of scotch tape over her electrical outlets to keep the bedbugs out. Every so often she changes the tape, which usually has at least one or two dead bugs stuck to it.
“You know, I’ve had to throw away furniture because of these pests,” Bobby says, looking down at the dead bug. “One couch and three beds got thrown away. I was up in a different unit and had to move down here because the infestation was so bad. Even after the most recent spray, I have seen some bugs, even been bitten.”
Ever since I first stepped inside Fair Oaks, the residents have talked to me about three things: the mold, the bedbugs, and the elevators. Peggy has the worst mold problem, I am told, and Carrol knows about the elevators.
In her cramped kitchen, Carrol, who has lived at Fair Oaks for four years, pulls a package of ground beef out of the microwave. She is busy making meatloaf. They all love her meatloaf, she assures me. When I ask about the elevators, she stops cooking and braces herself against the cluttered counter.
“I am on the elevator, going down,” Carrol says, “and it stops, the doors open, and I go to get off. As I’m stepping off, the elevator drops down, about 8 inches, and stops. My foot catches, and I fall. I go unconscious for a few minutes.”
Carrol claims to have laid there on the floor for at least 20 minutes before two residents found her.
“These two men are wheelchair-bound,” Carrol says, turning away from her cooking and speaking slowly, emphatically, “wheelchair-bound, you understand, and they get up out of their chairs and bend down on their knees, holding one hand on their chairs and hooking the other hand under my arms, and they lift me up. My leg was so swollen and covered in bruises that you wouldn’t believe. That elevator has been broken constantly since I lived here. The week after I fell, my neighbor fell. They had to call the ambulance and get her to the hospital.”
Carrol claims that Fair Oaks management never took an accident report.
“You can’t just sit there and not take a report about something like this,” Carrol says, “so I went and got me an attorney. So did my neighbor, same attorney.”
FWHS said the elevators are “routinely serviced and inspected by a third-party vendor. We cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Carrol goes back to mixing her meatloaf before adding that the elevators are not the only things broken at Fair Oaks.
“I went 20 days without air-conditioning last February,” Carrol says. “Twenty days. I kept track of how hot it was in my apartment. I wrote the temperatures down. It never got bellow 82 and was usually above 90.”
When asked what could be done to fix the problem, Carrol replies simply, “Tear it all down and start over.”