Mackinton Matador looks at the sign on his front door with a helpless expression. “UNSAFE BUILDING,” reads the notice printed on bright red paper. “This building is unsafe and its use or occupancy has been prohibited by the Building Official.
“MUST BE VACATED IMMEDIATELY,” it says.
Matador, 40, and his girlfriend and three children ages 9, 7 and 5 months are among four families forced to find new places to live after officials discovered toxic mold in their Wellington complex.
“It’s like a punch in the face,” Matador said, leaning against the wall just inches from the red notice posted by Wellington’s building department. He moved to the home just six weeks ago and paid $4,200 to cover first and last months’ rent and a security deposit. “I come back to the same situation. Saving that money is not easy.”
The property in the 1100 block of White Pine Drive includes two buildings that face each other, with two units in each building. West Palm Beach-based AIG Enterprise Corp. took over the property in 2012, county records show.
While corporate officer and property manager Isaac Antoine said the tenants can stay until the end of the month, the village’s order has them worried. They have nowhere to go and as of Friday had not moved out.
The mold has been found in varying degrees in three of the units, Assistant Village Manager Jim Barnes said. It is caused by moisture from leaking roofs that built up in the walls over several years, inspectors found. Infrared images show dense pockets of saturated drywall in each unit.
Other photos reveal what can be seen by the naked eye: A blanket of dark mold on the wall under a kitchen sink. Grayish blossoms next to a hot water heater. An air conditioner with a soggy, black filter.
‘Doesn’t look good’
The issue has posed a new challenge for the village, which typically deals only with code enforcement issues that can be seen from the outside. Barnes said this case is different because Wellington officials were invited into one of the units by a tenant.
“Once our inspectors went in there, it was like, ‘Hmm, there appears to be more here than meets the eye,’” he said.
Wellington called in backup: mold inspector Brad Fishbein with Brownfish Field Inspections, and certified mold remediator George Vincent of The Real Mold Guy.
The village’s decision to bring in contractors was unprecedented, Vincent said: “They broke a barrier.”
But for Barnes it was a simple decision. “We didn’t have the expertise” on mold, he said. “But even to the untrained eye, you can say, ‘I don’t know what the extent of it is, and I don’t know what it is, but that doesn’t look good.’”
In his report to Wellington, Vincent wrote of “sophomoric repairs” to the building that made the moisture issues worse. He pointed to a photo of an air-conditioning unit where the filter appears to be thick with a muck-like substance.
“This unit does not run,” he said.
In one unit, Fishbein found a dangerous type of mold called Stachybotrys — better known as black mold. In his 12 years in Florida, Vincent said he’s only encountered four cases of black mold. It emits a toxin that can affect human health, leading to serious illnesses such as cancer.
The topic is personal for Vincent. Doctors once told him he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But he didn’t have cancer. He had been exposed to mycotoxin — the type of toxin released by Stachybotrys.
Because the mold needs a small amount of moisture to thrive, it is especially dangerous to children under age 3 and adults age 65 and older because their lungs are moister, Vincent said. “One of the beliefs is that the mold can actually grow inside the lung,” he said.
Antoine, the property manager, said he did not know about the moisture in the walls until the village’s inspectors found it.
“Before that we have nothing that said we had it,” he said. His company previously sent a contractor out to remove part of a moldy wall but didn’t find anything, he said.
He’s given his tenants until the end of the month to get out even though the village says they must leave immediately. “Some of them are credit-challenged and it will be tough for them to find another place to live,” he said.
Antoine’s next step will be to hire a contractor to fix everything, at a cost he is hesitant to estimate.
From the village’s perspective, the next step will be to see how quickly Antoine complies, Barnes said. AIG could be fined, but with this being the first case of its kind in Wellington, that could take some time, Barnes added.
For Matador, who once had mold issues in West Palm Beach, the village has been surprisingly efficient. One week there was a building inspector in his home, and two weeks later the parking lot was filled with village vehicles.
“Wellington, they care,” he said. “West Palm Beach, I called them and they said they could not do anything. But Wellington cares.”
As Matador plans his next move, he is gun-shy about signing another lease. He left his West Palm Beach apartment because of mold issues but said Antoine assured him there was no mold in the new place.
Then Matador met the neighbors. They told him the previous tenant had left in a rage after struggling to get Antoine to get rid of the mold.
When his family moved in, they noticed a familiar smell: mold. But they tried to shrug it off. “You can smell something different,” he said. “I thought, it’s just the paint. He (Antoine) had just painted. But no. It was the mold.”
Matador’s children were getting sick at his previous apartment — symptoms he sees in them again. “They have runny noses,” he said. “I have to go out at night to buy them spray to put up their noses so they can breathe.”
The sign on his door says to leave immediately. But Matador doesn’t know where he can go or if he will get his rent money back.
“It’s not easy,” he said, shaking his head. “He just took so much money from me two months ago. To have to move again …” he paused. “I never should have taken this place.”