Mice and mold in DC public housing

"These people ... look down on you like you’re beneath them"

Apologies for the delay on sending this out, friends. These stories usually go out on Tuesdays, but I had a migraine yesterday and had to sleep during the day. Thanks for your patience.

Today’s interview is with a woman named Sheila Herring, who lives in public housing in Northeast Washington, DC. She’s lived in DC her whole life, and on the same public housing property for more than two decades. This housing has severely damaged her health: Black mold and mice infestations triggered asthma and allergies.

Mold and rodents in the city’s public housing are a known health issue. In 2019, the Washington City Paper’s Morgan Baskin reported that “hospitalization rates for asthma [are] 10 times higher for Ward 8 kids.” Ward 8 has the highest poverty rate in the city, at 33 percent; in posh Ward 3, it’s 7.6 percent. “There are so many children in which poor housing is the leading cause of their poor asthma,” said Dr. Ankoor Shah, the medical director of Children’s National Health System’s asthma clinic, to City Paper. (The city is far from the only landlord in the District that has allowed problems like this to fester, to be clear.)

Looming over this conversation is the issue of gentrification, which Herring mentioned. Though this housing is clearly unfit for purpose, there’s also the fear of losing it entirely to ‘redevelopment,’ or of being displaced to far-away neighborhoods. As WAMU wrote in March 2020, there’s “a history in D.C. that replacing deteriorating public housing buildings begins by displacing many of the residents who live there.” The mayor’s 2021 budget allocated just $25 million to public housing repairs; advocates say $60 million per year is needed to deal with the housing’s “severe health risks.”

Herring is not one of the millions of Americans who lack health insurance. She’s covered by Medicare and Medicaid, though as you’ll see, she’s still struggled with the level of coverage those programs provide. But her story is an example of how health justice requires more than improving health insurance coverage or passing single-payer. There’s no justice when our people are living in housing that makes them sick. As Shah told Baskin and the City Paper:

“You could keep adding more and more and more” prescriptions to a patient, Shah says, but if health providers focus exclusively on patients’ medication at the expense of environmental contributors, “you’re only doing half the treatment. There are lopsided treatment plans for some kids that are very sick, and we need the environment part to kick in. A lot of that is out of our control.”

A patient could have the best insurance in the country, but if they leave the doctor’s office and go straight back to an apartment riddled with mold and mice, they’ll never have a chance to be healthy.

This interview was conducted at the beginning of December. Herring and her lawyers recently reached a settlement with the D.C. Housing Authority, and repair work has begun on her home. As always, the interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Sheila Herring: Well, I was in one unit for 25 years. And that unit was full of mold, you name it, it had a mice infestation, mold, I mean I had black mold on my wall with mushrooms growing out, and fur. And I ended up having to fix it myself because they didn’t do it, they wouldn’t do it. But because of all the mold, I didn’t know it was there, I started, me and my children started accumulating respiratory issues. I have three [children] but at that time, when I was down in that house, I had my three and four nephews, all in my custody. But everybody started accumulating respiratory issues, so now everybody has either chronic bronchitis or asthma, from all of this stuff. 

Then, because of the gentrification and all of this going on, and them redoing the housing, and tearing them down and redoing them, I had to relocate, so I moved on the other end on the same property, but in a two-bedroom townhouse that supposedly had been renovated. I’ve been here now three years, maybe four, and, the mice—I mean, they was here before I moved in.

Sick Note: You moved into their apartment.

Sheila Herring: I have videos of the mice running around, posing for me to take pictures, I have videos and pictures where they pose for me, let me know that this is their house and they weren’t scared of me. They urinated and defecated from one end of my brand-new sofa to the other end. And the underneath storage and all my blankets, and everything. Housing do not want to pay for anything. It’s been a mess.

Sick Note: So what would happen when you would complain about this?

Sheila Herring: They do nothing. They do nothing. They tell you, ‘call in a work order.’ Why should I have to—I called in a work order, but why should I have to keep calling in the same thing, when you know that is damage and stuff what’s going on? I shouldn’t have to keep calling in, because you know this. 

Sick Note: Can I ask whether you have health insurance, or if you do, what kind?

Sheila Herring: Yes, I have Medicare and Medicaid. 

Sick Note: Do you have a primary care doctor that you go to regularly?

Sheila Herring: Yes.

Sick Note: And do you like them, are they good? 

Sheila Herring: [Pause] It’s working.

Sick Note: How often would you say that you’ve had to see them because of the issues caused by your housing?

Sheila Herring: Well, it’s not the primary care, it’s that I constantly have to run to the allergy doctor, because I have deadly allergies, and she gave me a letter to give to Housing letting them know that I had to get rid of my furniture and everything, due to the mice infestation and everything, because it was hazardous to my health due to my respiratory issues. They did nothing still. They still said they weren’t going to reimburse me for my furniture.

Sick Note: And how long ago was that?

Sheila Herring: I’m still fighting it, since I’ve been here. I’ve been complaining since day one, when they moved me in here. So basically, I’ve been taking my time, and piece by piece, trying to fix the house myself. 

Sick Note: That must take up a lot of your time. 

Sheila Herring: It does. But I’ve been, I’m making progress. It could be quicker but I have to pay for this out of my pocket, because it’s not just a matter of paying it, I have to go over and plaster a lot of stuff because like I said, they threw this house together. I just got them to close up a hole that they kept trying to make like I was crazy, telling them that the contractors left the back of the furnace completely open, and that’s how the mice and rats was getting in here. And finally they came in last October, and sealed when they pulled the furnace piece off, and saw what I was talking about, and then they started looking stupid. And I have pictures of all of it, everything. I have pictures of mice jumping out of my stovetop, on my counter, into my oven mitts, and my son, anything they touch he throws away.

Sick Note: You said you’re having to pay for all this out of your own pocket. Can I ask what kind of income sources you have?

Sheila Herring: I’m on disability. I get disability, I get income once a month. So between my bills and trying to replace my furniture and everything, it’s hard. 

Sick Note: So, going back to healthcare and health insurance, have you ever had trouble with your Medicare or your Medicaid, have you ever had trouble filling in forms or finding doctors that will accept it, or things like that?

Sheila Herring: Yes, I’ve had problems finding doctors that will accept my insurance, and I’ve also had problems with pharmacists and different medical supply stores accepting my insurance, for medical equipment and all.

Sick Note: When stuff like that happens, presumably, you know, that takes up a lot of time trying to fix that stuff as well. Do you have people to help you do that kind of stuff or are you just on your own?

Sheila Herring: I’m on my own. 

Sick Note: Can you tell me a little bit about, it’s totally up to you, the kind of medical treatments and pills that you might have to be on for your respiratory conditions?

Sheila Herring: Right now I’m on, I have to get on a nebulizer machine twice a day. But my machine is so old, it went out on me, and for the last three years I’ve been having problems getting a new one, because nobody accepts my insurance. So, now, I just called the insurance, I have til Monday to get everything straight, I’m trying to get another machine, so they finally gave me information that they said will work, where I can get another machine. I’m on three inhalers for my asthma, three different types of inhalers.

Sick Note: Do you have to pay for any of that stuff out of pocket? Does that cost a lot?

Sheila Herring: Well, my co-payments add up. I just got a letter saying they’re increasing it, my co-payments, so I’ve been talking with the insurance company trying to find a better carrier for my medication, because this is crazy, it keeps going up on my co-payment. 

Sick Note: How much did they want to make the co-payments now?

Sheila Herring: My maximum amount, it depends on what the prescription was, was two-something. But back here, about eight months ago, it jumped up to like $3.65. Now it’s $4. Now the medicine is going to be $4 now, so I’m trying to find somebody cheaper, because on top of my respiratory issues, I have spinal scoliosis, I have fibromyalgia, I’m on Lyrica for that, it’s hard to get Lyrica but my doctor specified that I had to have the Lyrica. But it’s costing me. Now we’ve been trying to work with Pfizer to see if they would give me my Lyrica, versus me having to keep paying the co-payments and all on it. So I’m waiting on that now. 

Sick Note: That sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, to get the things that you need. 

Sheila Herring: It is. The housing don’t take under consideration, when I moved in, the bannister was loose, when I was coming down the steps I fell down the steps. I had just had surgery seven months prior to me falling down the steps, on my rotator cuff. Now I have another tear in my rotator cuff, due to falling down the steps. But they don’t want to pay me for my furniture. 

Sick Note: When you’re dealing with all these issues, and spending so much time just trying to have a place to live that’s decent, how does it make you feel, when they don’t listen to you and they ignore your calls?

Sheila Herring: It’s stressful. It’s stressful. It’s stressful and it’s depressing. Because you know you’re trying to do all the right things, and do everything, go about doing things the right way, and then you have these people, that’s in these positions, look down on you like you’re beneath them, and have no respect for others or their jobs. And talk to you any kind of way. It can be depressing. People like me, I’m one of them types that’s, I’m not going to let you talk to me any kind of way, or treat me any kind of way. Because you’re going to get it back, whatever you give is what you’re gonna get back.