Crawl space
Lisa Carter and her daughter Kierra live in Poplar Ridge, a 67-home Habitat for Humanity neighborhood in Greensboro. They and their neighbors describe problems with mold due to a design flaw with the homes' crawl spaces and the neighborhood's grading. Grace Vitaglione / Wmforo

Lisa Carter described her problems sleeping. When she hears a noise at night, she said she checks on her daughter across the hall. Carter said she was afraid the floor under her daughter’s bed would fall through soft spots in the floor and into the crawl space.

Her daughter, Kierra, has Crouzon Syndrome, is nonverbal and primarily uses a wheelchair, according to Carter. The bed is medical grade so it’s heavier than normal, Carter said. If her bed does fall through the floor, Carter said she imagines how she would go into the crawl space after her.

“I'm going to have to get under there with her, but I’m scared I’m not going to be able to get her out,” she said. “That is terrifying for me.”

The soft floors throughout the house have mold, as does one wall of the bathroom, Carter said, blaming moisture issues in the crawl space.

Carter’s house is part of Poplar Ridge, a 67-home Habitat for Humanity neighborhood built in Greensboro in 1996. Carter said she bought her home in 2000. She initially found issues with mold in the window seals, but Habitat fixed it, she said. Then in 2019, she noticed soft spots in her floors and has been struggling with the issue since, Carter said.

Carter’s next-door neighbor ChesKesha Cunningham-Dockery said she found similar issues in her crawl space. Habitat’s website said that’s when the organization realized the problem was bigger than just Carter’s house.

ChesKesha Cunningham-Dockery said she found issues with mold and mildew in the crawl space of her Habitat-built Greensboro home in 2023. Grace Vitaglione / Wmforo

Cunningham-Dockery said Habitat told her this situation is partly because the neighborhood’s grading doesn’t properly redirect water.

She said Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro told homeowners they can’t fix their houses individually — because the grading affects the entire neighborhood, everyone fixing their own property wouldn’t solve the issue. The houses were also built with open crawl space designs, according to Habitat, which many crawl space companies now say are more susceptible to mold.

At least half of the houses in the neighborhood are affected, according to Christine Byrd, director of development and communications for the Greensboro Habitat affiliate.

Homeowners such as Cunningham-Dockery and Carter are now looking to Habitat to fix the grading, remediate mold and seal each homes’ crawl space. While Habitat of Greensboro has said the organization has a plan to do so, Cunningham-Dockery and Carter said the community’s trust in the organization has deteriorated. 

Years of delays with crawl space issues

Carter said the lack of trust started with delays in fixing her home. She said she first reached out to Habitat about the issues in August 2019, and CEO David Kolosieke came to see her house in person.

He explained to her how grading was the cause, which she never would have known otherwise, she said. He also said Habitat would fix it, Carter said.

The slope behind ChesKesha Cunningham-Dockery’s house in Greensboro. Grace Vitaglione / Wmforo

But then in early 2020, the pandemic lockdown occurred and Carter said she didn’t hear from Habitat for months. A Habitat staffer called her in 2022, but no one else followed up for months after that, she said.

Byrd said as the organization was coming out of the pandemic lockdown, the construction director left and they were without a construction staff for eight months, so work was delayed.

In early May 2023, Carter said the organization’s new construction director came to her house and said her issues were severe: her floors could cave in within three years.

For Habitat to work on a house, Byrd said homeowners must sign a contract. But Carter said the contract they sent her did not include two main issues: mold and mildew remediation and repair to a crack in her foundation.

Carter emailed revisions to the agreement, and said Kolosieke responded that the agreement was a standard contract and they would need to work with their attorney on revisions. Carter said Habitat still hasn’t produced an adequate contract.

However, Byrd said Habitat has revised the contract multiple times at Carter’s request but can’t speak to why Carter hasn’t agreed to it.

A mold specialist assessed Carter’s house and found toxic black mold and a cracked joist in her subfloor, according to an email sent to Carter in late 2023.

A stormwater specialist with the city of Greensboro also told Carter over email that since her house is at the bottom of a hill and in the path of where a stream once flowed, a drainage solution must be implemented.

Carter said she feels “disheartened.”

“I'm still living in mold and mildew and my floors are steadily sinking and getting soft,” she said. “I have a special-needs child who has severe health issues. What is that going to do to her health?”

Back and forth

For the rest of the neighborhood, this is a fresher issue.

Cunningham-Dockery said she had to patch over a hole in her floor in February. According to an assessment from Tar Heel Basement, there’s mold in her crawl space, she said.

Cunningham-Dockery said she installed gutters and a French drain in her yard, but nothing fixed the drainage issues. She also had the insulation in her crawlspace replaced, she said.

Her doctor suggested she move out because of health issues she’s having due to mold in her house, Cunningham-Dockery said, but she can’t afford to move. 

Lisa Carter said there’s mold in her crawl space, partly because the Greensboro neighborhood’s grading doesn’t adequately redirect water. Grace Vitaglione / Wmforo

Homeowners and Habitat staffers met about the issues in September 2023. During the following months, Habitat commissioned evaluations of the neighborhood’s topography and the crawl space areas of several homes, according to Habitat’s website timeline.

At a November meeting, Habitat staff distributed work agreements for homeowners, according to the website. But Kolosieke said Habitat received concerns from homeowners who interpreted language in the agreement as taking their rights away: “This agreement supersedes any and all prior oral or written statements or agreements regarding the subject matter of this agreement.”

While Byrd said it’s boilerplate language, Cunningham-Dockery said many in the neighborhood read it as though the organization was trying to wiggle out of past agreements.

At a Greensboro City Council meeting on Jan. 2, Cunningham-Dockery and Carter called for American Rescue Plan funds designated for Habitat to be redirected towards fixing the issues in their neighborhood. The local NAACP branch sent a letter in support of this proposal.

To work around concerns about the work agreement, Cunningham-Dockery said she and a couple other homeowners collected permission from neighbors in late January solely for evaluations to take place.

Habitat sent out crawl space inspectors with Pest Management Systems, a partner of the organization, on Feb. 13 and 14 to do evaluations of more than 40 homes.

Yet Cunningham-Dockery said the inspections felt rushed to her. Inspectors spent about 15 minutes at her home and most others in the neighborhood, she said. The inspector at her house said he didn’t see any issues, although there’s mold in the crawl space, she said.

Carter said she asked to see her report from the inspection but was told Habitat had to give the OK first. Then Habitat sent her an assessment for a different house, according to an email obtained by CPP. She received the correct one March 1.

The notes included: “fungal growth heavy, insulation falling down … had toilet leak under bathroom.”

Cunningham-Dockery said she served two terms on the Habitat board until 2023 and she loves the organization, but not how it’s operating. She has asked frequent questions at meetings between the neighborhood and Habitat, but said it feels like Habitat staff are frustrated with her.

“I don't want to seem like the angry Black woman,” she said.

Factors in crawl space moisture issues

Kolosieke said Habitat did grade the neighborhood to code at the time of construction, but erosion and factors such as structures in homeowners’ backyards have led to the current situation.

The standards on grading and stormwater drainage were different a couple decades ago and it’s true that land changes over time, said Ray Johnson, Stormwater Operations Supervisor at the City of Greensboro.

He said multiple factors are likely behind these issues, such as vapor barriers in the crawl space areas that need upgrading.

“The grading could have been poor at the time, but again we're talking about 25 years,” he said. “We’re talking about a crawl space that appears to not have any kind of drainage.”

Johnson said construction professionals debate whether vented or sealed crawl spaces are better.

Rich McLaughlin, a Department of Crop and Soil Sciences emeritus professor at NC State University, said in general, having an unsealed crawl space in North Carolina is “a terrible idea” because of the humidity. That's especially true in the Piedmont region that includes Greensboro, because soil in the Piedmont drains poorly, he said. 

McLaughlin said the City of Greensboro would probably not have approved a grading plan that allowed water runoff toward the houses even 30 years ago.

Robert Tesh, owner of Pest Management Systems Inc., said he also recommends sealing a crawl space to prevent humidity and moisture buildup. Habitat for Humanity started building sealed crawl space areas of new homes in the early 2000s, according to Byrd.

Tesh also said many foundation drains in the neighborhood are also stopped up or damaged, which contributes to the problem.

Planned repairs

Habitat is fine with using the ARPA funds for the grading and is discussing that with the city, but it’s frustrating the funds can’t go towards building new houses as intended, especially with the affordable housing crisis, Byrd said.

Even with that money, the funding to fix these issues will be a challenge, she said. Pest Management Systems gave the inspections for free, Byrd said, and Habitat will work with their partners on discounting services and materials.

Byrd said once the crawl space evaluations are done, Habitat will then work with Pest Management Systems to seal the crawl spaces, remediate the mold and fix any drainage issues.

Habitat also commissioned a topographical report that started Jan. 5, according to the website. Kolosieke said it could take six to nine months before Habitat can actually start fixing the grading, which the organization hopes to start in the summer.

Cunningham-Dockery said she was initially concerned why Habitat planned to tackle the crawl spaces first when so much of the conversation was about grading. 

Kolosieke said Habitat is focusing on the crawl spaces first because fixing grading is a longer process and the organization wants to take what action it can right away.

Since mold built up in the crawl spaces over 25 years, Byrd said, having a couple months between remediation and fixing the grading likely won’t be enough time for the issues to begin again.

Still, for the actual work to take place, Byrd said Habitat will need homeowners to sign work agreements. Six homeowners signed the original agreement, according to Byrd, allowing Habitat to start work on their homes.

For the rest, Byrd said Habitat would take that boilerplate language out of the new contract to dissuade worries.

Troubled history

Byrd said she understands why some homeowners are wary, as Habitat is perceived as a white organization and Poplar Ridge has many Black homeowners. The history of white businesses taking advantage of Black communities can’t be ignored, she said, but she would have hoped their years-long relationship with the homeowners would have dispelled that.

Habitat’s relationship with the homeowners also suffered because of the pandemic and staff not being able to interact in person in the neighborhood as often, she said.

Kay Brown, president of the NAACP of Greensboro, said her organization got involved in this issue because of the potential public health issue from mold making people sick, and because affordable housing shouldn’t equate to lesser quality.

That’s especially true for lower-income families who wouldn’t be able to afford costly fixes down the line, she said.

“In our Black communities, when we talk about development and housing our workforce, when we talk about we need to increase homeownership, the thing that sometimes people miss is we're not asking for just anything to be built and developed,” she said.

“We want quality here in our neighborhoods and our communities the same way that quality gets built in other communities and other neighborhoods.”

Crawl space woes appear limited to Greensboro Habitat

The issues in Poplar Ridge are not indicative of a wider issue with Habitat building practices, Byrd said, and Habitat is involved in construction innovation to evolve as standards change.

She said making the houses low maintenance is part of the building model, as Habitat knows lower-income homeowners can't afford costly repairs.

CPP asked Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington and Charlotte if any of them had issues with long term sustainability of their houses.

Wilmington and Asheville responded and said they did not.

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Grace Vitaglione is a reporter for Wmforo. Send an email to [email protected] to contact her.