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Coronavirus: Seniors displaced during pandemic await plans for return

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

As COVID-19 rages in South Florida, a moldy 182-unit high-rise for low-income seniors remains uninhabitable after a June electrical fire forced the evacuation of the building.

Seniors of St. Andrews Residence are scattered among hotels in Palm Beach County, family and friends with no definitive plans to return.

The high-rise is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida and has been beset with numerous problems for the last two years, including pervasive mold and other fires, residents told The Palm Beach Post.

It is an independent living facility for seniors on a tight income.

Resident Judy Collins is living at a nearby hotel at her own expense, while others are having their rooms paid for by the Diocese, which is also providing meals. She has spent at least $4,000 so far — money she hopes to recoup.

The unfortunate situation is “putting these high-risk seniors in jeopardy at area hotels by coming in contact with many other travelers exposing them to a deadly virus when they should be sheltering in place,” Collins said.

Collins said she received a memo from the management company of the high-rise at 208 Fern Street that one of the residents had contracted COVID-19. She said the person who tested positive is living at a hotel.

She said elevators at St. Andrews are not working properly and said black mold is out of control. Another former resident said that the mold is so pervasive that it coats furniture and clothes.

Residents have been able to get into the building to obtain needed belongings.

Scaffolding for weeks climbed up the high-rise and huge generators hummed outside the building. The smell of diesel permeated the air, Collins said.

One would think nothing is wrong at all by the website for St. Andrews Residence. It touts “exceptional senior apartments” that “create the world-class atmosphere you deserve.”

“This property is far from exceptional,” said Collins, 67, an active book blogger and website designer. “There has been one problem after another. How can you survive when power is essential to work and live?”

In October 2018, residents were without air conditioning for about a week after the unit’s chiller caught fire. The latest fire occurred on June 14 at 6:30 a.m. when an electrical surge caused extensive damage.

“We had electricians and inspectors onsite immediately and quickly determined that the issue could not be remedied swiftly there the building had to be evacuated,” said Charee Russell, vice president of SPM Management.

"I went upstairs, I packed my clothes, came down and called my friend and she came and picked me up," resident Richard Micciche told the television station.

“I would assume it was with the electric in the building that we had for a couple of nights without air conditioning and no lights,” he added. “I was walking around with a flashlight.”

While some residents found refuge with friends and family, 125 were relocated to several hotels. Three meals a day are provided to those at the hotels, Russell said.

Nancy Gregory, 75 said she moved out of St. Andrews Residence because of a problem with mold. She now lives next door at the next door at St. James Residence.

“I got out in November of last year,” she said. “I was so glad I got out I was having trouble with the mold in my room.”

Gregory said some residents believe the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida had hoped to Band-aid any problems until it can sell the property in the near future.

“It’s a very valuable piece of property,” Gregory said.

Located near the Intracoastal Waterway, the high rise of St. Andrews was purchased in 2009 for $3.3 million. It now has an assessed market value of $13.8 million.

Residents were already angry that the building changed a policy that forced them to get their packages at the Post Office about a mile away. The management company said this was a safety issue during the pandemic.

Collins agrees with Gregory that there seems to be another agenda at foot. She said the laundry rooms are in disrepair and leaky pipes fuel the growth of mold.

“I have had to purchase expensive air purifiers and special allergy filters which are costly to survive in my apartment,” she said. “St. Andrews is always riding on the minimum to get by.”

SPM says the Diocese has done everything it can to accommodate the residents displaced and is working with FPL and the city of West Palm Beach in hopes to have them return home as soon as possible.

The building’s management, as of this weekend, is waiting for inspection clearances.

“While we regret any inconvenience this has caused residents, the owner has striven to make temporary living arrangements as comfortable as possible, even going above what is required,” Russell said.

“Our residents are like our family, and their well-being is of the utmost important to the owners.”

Efforts to reach the Diocese for comment were unsuccessful.

Collins said she fears the Diocese will force residents back into a building that is still unsafe and prone to electrical failure.

“The people staying in the hotels they provide will have no choice then but to go back,” she said.

jpacenti@pbpost.com

@jpacenti