U.S. District Court Judge Sam Haddon of Great Falls is poised to make two critical decisions in a lawsuit filed last fall over substandard housing on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The plaintiffs allege that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Blackfeet Housing Authority knowingly built and sold 153 homes using inferior and potentially harmful materials in the mid-1970s.
Despite the area’s brutal winters, the homes were constructed on wooden foundations, many of which are now buckling and leaking, in some cases prompting stubborn growths of mildew and toxic molds. The basement wood is also treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a substance federal officials want removed from commercial sale because of health concerns.
Numerous residents contend they’ve been harmed by the homes. They say their earlier complaints were largely ignored.
“The death and sickness is too numerous to be coincidence,” explains lead plaintiff Martin Marceau. “We had no other means except to go to a lawsuit.”
Plaintiff attorneys Thomas Towe and Jeffrey Simkovic of Billings argue that HUD has a legal mandate to provide safe and well-built housing. But defense attorneys are asking Haddon to dismiss the case on a variety of grounds, including sovereign immunity.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Cavan, representing both HUD and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, argues that the lawsuit should be dropped because it was not until 1988, “well after the completion of the Blackfeet homes in question,” that specific Indian housing legislation was approved by Congress. Therefore, he argues, the federal government is not responsible for the dwellings. Cavan adds that Martinez had nothing to do with agency decisions made nearly three decades ago.
Towe and Simkovic, however, maintain that the agency—and whoever leads it—must be accountable for the ongoing problems.
Haddon is soon expected to wade through the arguments. Once he decides whether the case moves forward, a request to expand the litigation to class-action status will be addressed.