Finding their way home: After flooding forced them into hotels for 2 months, some Southampton Meadows residents still reeling from ordeal

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  • Tim English Jr., a resident at Southampton Meadows, talks Feb. 3 about his experiences during and after the flooding on the first floor of the Southampton apartment complex last November. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Denise Renee, a resident at Southampton Meadows, talks Feb. 3 about her experiences during and after the flooding on the first floor of the Southampton apartment complex last November. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Southampton Meadows resident Tim English says the upheaval and stress caused by flooding at the apartment complex in November has exacerbated his health problems. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Denise Renee, a resident at Southampton Meadows, talks to the Gazette on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, about her experiences during and after the flooding on the first floor of the Southampton apartment complex last November. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tim English, a resident at Southampton Meadows in Southampton, shows a short video he took of the flooding on the first floor of the Southampton apartment complex in November. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Clothing of Southampton Meadows resident Tim English that was sent out to be cleaned following a flood at the Southampton apartment complex in November was returned this week. Photographed on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Southampton Meadows apartments on College Highway (Route 10) in Southampton, shown Feb. 3. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tim English, a resident at Southampton Meadows, talks to the Gazette on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, about his experiences during and after the flooding on the first floor of the Southampton apartment complex last November. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2022 7:35:23 PM
Modified: 2/14/2022 7:33:30 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — When Denise Renee returned to her Southampton Meadows home last week after a significant flood forced her into a hotel for more than two months, she couldn’t believe that the heat didn’t work and many of her possessions, including a bed frame and headboard, were gone.

One of Renee’s neighbors, Tim English Jr., who was also displaced by the flood, wondered why his photographs were thrown out, and where many other items such as dressers, bookcases and bedding had gone.

“When we came back, we had no blankets, no pillows — we froze,” English said. “My teeth were chattering.”

Renee and English are two of nearly a dozen first-floor residents at Southampton Meadows who are frustrated with how the property’s manager, Way Finders, has responded to the crisis over the last two months. They say the ordeal, in which they have had to bounce from hotel to hotel while the apartments were repaired, all the while paying rent for apartments they couldn’t live in, has led to unnecessary stress.

Staff at Way Finders acknowledge the stress the situation has placed on their tenants and have said they are doing all they can to fix up the apartments, while also covering hotels, meals and other expenses for the residents.

“We support our staff and all the work that our staff did during this terrible time,” said Way Finders Chief Development Officer Megan Talbert. “Senior management has been aware of everything since the beginning and we do feel that they acted appropriately.”

An ordeal

The trouble began in the early morning of Nov. 30, when residents at Southampton Meadows — a three-story, 40-unit subsidized apartment complex for elderly and disabled residents at 128 College Highway — found their bathrooms flooded.

Shortly thereafter, notices were placed on tenants’ doors stating that there was an “emergency issue with the septic system,” and the water had been shut off, according to David Fine, who has lived at the property for 32 years.

Then, just an hour later, alarms were sounding and Way Finders management were frantically knocking on residents’ doors in an attempt to evacuate everyone as a deluge of water poured into the first floor of the building.

“Within minutes, it was absolutely necessary to escape my unit because the water was swiftly approaching the height of the electric sockets — along with everyone else’s on the first floor,” Fine said. “We could have all been simultaneously electrocuted if the sockets had been reached.”

His fellow first-floor neighbor, English, was washing dishes in his kitchen sink as the flood began. By the time English got to the door, the water had seeped at least 5 feet into his apartment. “When I opened the (front) door, the water knocked me off of my feet,” he said.

As it turns out, after the building’s maintenance staff corrected the initial issue with the septic system and had attempted to turn the water back on, a clean water supply pipe in the building burst after its fitting separated, said Faith Williams, senior vice president of property and asset management for Way Finders.

“We had hundreds of gallons of water pour into the first floor of the building. We immediately pulled the fire alarm and evacuated the building, mostly because the pipe was in the mechanical room and right beside the electric meters, so we weren’t sure if that was going to explode,” Williams said.

Thirty-eight households — two of the 40 units were vacant — were forced out and into area hotels.

“The hard part really is how heartbreaking it is when you have to put 38 households in hotel rooms and not even know when they’re going to come back,” Williams said. “I’ve known a lot of these people for 10 years, some 15 years. I know that kind of stress it puts on people … Seeing everyone out in the parking lot with blankets on a pretty cold day.”

Within a few days, Williams said, the second- and third-floor residents were back with restored electricity, heat, water and the elevator. Damage to the first floor, however, was significant.

Williams said Springfield-based Way Finders, which manages 23 properties and about 822 residential units in the region, spent some $300,000 to remove and replace flooring and the bottom 2 feet of wallboard on each wall had to be removed. Tenants’ belongings were also packed up and clothing laundered.

Hotel transition

Adapting to new surroundings proved challenging for a number of first-floor residents. After being displaced from her home, Renee says she had to switch hotels multiple times. Her first hotel stay also had flooding, while another had evidence of mold.

“It’s been hell,” Renee said. “I’m tired. I’m. Just. Tired.”

She says the stress from the whole ordeal has landed her in the hospital with chest pains.

Similarly, English, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and optic neuritis, says the circumstances surrounding the “musical hotels” and a stressful argument with staff sent him to the hospital for several days.

“When my MS flares up, I lose my eyesight completely,” English said. “We have enough stress on us as disabled and elderly people, and they keep piling more on us. With MS, the worst thing is being stressed out.”

Part of that stress has been trying to figure out what happened to some of the items in his apartment while he was away. When he moved back in, for example, his sheets and bedding were tossed out, but his mattress, which he says took three people to remove because it was so saturated with water, was returned to him wrapped in plastic.

“I won’t unwrap it because the mold spores will go everywhere,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s been sleeping on an air mattress. English says that he was offered a “cheap replacement” for his mattress, but declined because his previous mattress cost more and catered to his back and hips.

Unlike English, Renee’s couch wasn’t returned. She said she was confused as to why hers was thrown out because her sofa had legs, whereas English’s was directly on the ground. Additionally, Renee says she’s still missing her dressers, TV stands, nightstands or lamps.

“Between the flood, the losing the stuff, the hotel — it’s just been ongoing. It feels like it’s never-ending,” she said.

Some things irreplaceable

Talbert, of Way Finders, said Baystate Restoration, the company hired to conduct the restoration, determined which items were unsalvageable and discarded them. Other items were packed up and stored in a heated storage space. The items that were stored off-site have since been returned, she said.

The company also has a record for every item that was in each individual apartment, she added. Staff has also gone through and looked at the compiled lists and boxes and determined what was returned.

“We will make every effort to replace those items that were not returned or compensate for replacement value,” Talbert said. “We do know that there are some things that unfortunately cannot be replaced, like some of the photographs that were lost.”

Renee said that one of the more frustrating aspects of being displaced aside from having her possessions destroyed was still having to pay rent.

“They had the nerve, the nerve to say that we had to pay rent because we weren’t homeless and they put us up,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to pay anything until we’re back and comfortable the way it was.”

Williams said that Way Finders received a final determination from the Department of Housing and Urban Development more recently stating that tenants would not be required to pay rent for that time. For those who had paid for the months of December and January, the checks and money orders have not been deposited, she said.

Additionally, for the two months that first-floor tenants were displaced, Williams said, Way Finders gave tenants $55 per day to cover meals and incidentals. She also estimated that between $50,000 and $100,000 was spent on hotel rooms and a variety of gift cards.

Throughout the entire experience, Fine has been taking detailed notes. He feels that staff hasn’t always kept their word on some of their promises. He said a conference call with Way Finders staff left him stunned as he was told by a member of the agency that “We (Way Finders) have no obligation to provide accommodation, transportation, meal compensation, storage — not anything but replacement of belongings.”

“I’m quite upset and determined to make things right,” he said.

Fine said he is working with his neighbors as he plans to submit documentation and letters to attorneys, HUD, the state Commission Against Discrimination, the attorney general’s office and state representatives, detailing the circumstances.

Williams called the situation traumatic and tragic.

“We’re working very hard to make this as right as we possibly can and make a bad situation as positive as we possibly can,” she said. “As we’re learning what the issues are, we’re working to meet the struggles that have been created. It’s a puzzle we’re putting back together.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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