HUD’s duds 

Tribal members say fed’s substandard housing is making them ill

Jamie LaPier was already troubled by the black mold creeping up the walls of her family’s home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, but the foot-high mushrooms growing out of the basement carpet were the last straw. “There was a bunch of them,” says LaPier, who lives with her husband and three young children in a housing project about 30 miles east of Browning. “They were huge.”

While the mushrooms pulled up easily, the mold, some of which has proven to be toxic, was harder to remove. LaPier says the growth recently took over a downstairs bedroom, where frost cakes the inside walls for much of the winter. The mold, exacerbated by plumbing leaks, also engulfed an adjacent bathroom, rendering it unusable.

The LaPier family lives in one of 153 reservation homes constructed with wooden foundations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assembled with wood that was pressure-treated with the toxic chemical chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, an undetermined number of the foundations leak, contributing to mold and mildew growth, as well as other structural problems.

The homes were provided for tribal members by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), with funding distributed through the Blackfeet Housing Authority. Most of the houses are being purchased by the residents through HUD’s “mutual self-help” program, which allows residents to eventually own their own homes.

Housing officials say that under the contracts, residents are expected to perform most of their own maintenance, except for repairing damage that is covered by insurance. But residents in many of the houses contend that sloppy oversight and planning when the structures were built are at the root of the issue, and that’s not their fault.

For their part, HUD officials are distancing themselves from the problems, saying it’s up to the Blackfeet Tribe to come up with solutions. “These are tribal homes, not HUD homes,” says an agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., who insists that her name not be used as a condition for her being interviewed. She maintains that anonymity is required by the agency’s public affairs policy.

“These homes were essentially built by the tribe, and maintenance was to be handled by the tribe,” she says. But tribal officials and resident activists think the federal agency should take the lead.

“HUD told them they were going to use wooden foundations, and that was that,” says Great Falls attorney Steve Doherty, who represents the housing authority. “There’s obviously a difference of opinion. HUD has the money, and we have to work with them. What the housing authority is interested in is fixing and addressing the problems, and that’s going to require people to work together.”

Some of the wood foundations are rotting and pulling apart, despite a 50-year “guarantee.” Uneven settling and deterioration from the area’s harsh climate, as well as repeated water damage, have caused floors to buckle and sink, walls to bow, windows to pop out of their frames, and doors to become loose-fitting and drafty.

Terry Gray, who lives in the same project as the LaPier family, says an inspection last year turned up numerous problems. “Our inspector said he didn’t know what was holding our house up,” says Gray, who has a litany of complaints about cracked walls, frost-coated bedrooms, rotting siding and sloping floors.

Candace LaMott, who lives with several children and an elderly uncle in one of the worst homes, says she can’t move the furniture in her living room because the floor is so unstable. The house, which appears to be twisting on its foundation, is barely insulated. A closet in one icy bedroom has no foundation under it at all. Electrical and plumbing problems plague the dwelling as well.

“We’ve got to keep the heat up and going all the time,” she says. “As soon as you put a light bulb in the living room socket, it blows out.” Adding to the structural woes are widespread allegations that residents are being sickened or even killed by the homes.

LaMott says her mother, who lived in the house, became ill and died three years ago. She says her son suffers from severe headaches, and two grandchildren living in the home “have a hard time breathing.”

LaPier complains of frequent headaches that sometimes last for days. Her husband, Gale, says he’s also been getting “strange” headaches the past two years. They say their son, not quite 4 years old, gets unexplained nosebleeds up to 20 times a month. The woman who lived in their house before them died of cancer.

Others who reside in the wood-foundation homes, which are scattered across the reservation, report ailments ranging from constant sore throats, asthma and other respiratory distress, odd bumps and lumps, general fatigue, dizziness, and a host of other maladies ranging from kidney disease to cancer.

Leaders of the Glacier Homes Committee, organized last year to address the problems, are convinced the structures are making people sick, even though tribal leaders and Indian Health Service (IHS) officials say there’s little evidence so far to back up those contentions.

Committee members point to the mold, the CCA preservatives, and high radon readings in some of the structures as the basis for their concerns. “To me, it’s like a form of genocide,” says Gary Grant, one of the committee’s leaders. “They don’t care what kind of homes Indians live in. There’s a lot of sick people up here. You get out of these houses for a few hours and you feel better. But we have to come back to our homes because we have no other place to go.”

The citizens’ group is demanding that HUD and the Blackfeet Tribe, after years of inaction, take their concerns seriously, instigate repairs where feasible, and provide new homes on unmortgaged land to residents living in the worst places.

In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that manufacturers of CCA-treated wood will voluntarily phase out the product by 2004 because of health concerns. New residential uses of the wood are to be banned at that time, primarily because of the presence of arsenic, a known carcinogen.

Testing by a New Mexico firm of five of the Blackfeet homes in January, including the LaPier house, documented extensive mold and mildew problems, some of which could be harming residents. While high levels of arsenic were also found in CCA-treated wood at the homes, the $14,000 report, paid for by the housing authority, downplays the arsenic’s potential health impacts. It adds, however, that more study is needed.

“The main issue with this arsenic source is direct contact with the wood,” the report reads. “Skin irritation can occur, and arsenic can be absorbed through the skin. Inhalation and ingestion of arsenic is not anticipated, because the arsenic is bound up with the wood itself and would not be expected to escape into the atmosphere.”

Still, residents are wary about doing any remodeling or repairs in the homes because EPA has warned about sanding, sawing or otherwise disturbing the treated wood.

Reservation residents last December contacted Billings attorney Jeff Simkovic, who also has a master’s degree in public health. Simkovic confirms that he has been preparing for a potential lawsuit over the housing problems, but he told a meeting of residents and tribal leaders in Browning last week that if the issues can be resolved without litigation, that’s a preferable outcome.

“We have a bunch of homeowners who feel that the tribe has shafted them,” says Simkovic, who told tribal leaders he’s willing to help them find funding for a full-blown health study. “They don’t know if they have a safe house. No one does.”

Mr. Grant, among others, says tribal leaders and housing officials have been aware of some of the problems for decades, yet little was done until the homeowners organized.

“We were, in essence, forced to take these homes from HUD,” adds Martin Marceau, another committee leader. “Right from the beginning we’ve had structural problems. They’re not only toxic, but substandard. A lot of us quit paying our rent because nobody would listen to us. We believe there’s too many illnesses and deaths to be a coincidence. For 24 years they never made reasonable movement toward correcting these problems. In fact, the tribe and housing just tried to cover it up.”

“We have no reason to sweep any dirt under the rug,” counters housing authority Director Ray Miller. “If you start blaming people, it throws up the walls, and then it takes you longer to get anything done.” Don George, an IHS environmental health officer in Browning, says the “path to illness” is extremely difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, he feels it’s certainly possible that the homes could be making people sick.

“The conditions in some cases are pretty deplorable,” he says. “Some of these houses have mold everywhere, and some of the molds are known to be dangerous.” He adds that there are also many more questions that need to be answered about the treated wood.

“Whether these people have a case, I wouldn’t want to make that judgment,” George says. “It would take an extensive epidemiological study to determine exactly what’s going on.”

Blackfeet officials say they were never keen about having wood, instead of more-expensive concrete, used for foundations. In fact, records show that some of the homes were initially rejected by the tribal housing board as early as 1977.

“We questioned it when HUD first talked about the wood foundations,” says Blackfeet Chairman Earl Old Person, who used to live in one of the homes. His wife, for whatever reason, now suffers from cancer and kidney disease. But details are sketchy when it comes to determining exactly how the 153 houses were eventually cleared for occupancy.

At the time the homes were built, HUD only reviewed housing architectural and engineering plans “to ensure the tribes were meeting basic public safety standards,” according to the agency’s spokeswoman. “HUD does not prescribe particular building standards,” the spokeswoman says. “HUD gives tribes the flexibility to work with materials and design that is feasible for the tribe’s environment.”

But Simkovic maintains that the federal agency was calling the shots. “HUD did have a contract of adhesion with the housing authority, and they told them what to do,” the lawyer says.

Even as early as 1980, records show that the housing authority and HUD knew about other structural and drainage problems. At one point, HUD gave the Blackfeet a grant to fix homes where the foundations were already bowing. But the correction work was merely cosmetic, according to Carl Kipp, who served on the housing board at that time.

According to Mr. Grant, housing officials have also suggested giving at least some of the homes to residents for only $1 apiece. Inspection records show one severely damaged house was only worth $43,000, but the housing authority determined it would cost about $88,000 to replace it.

“We said, ‘No way. That’s letting you off the hook,’” Mr. Grant says. Last week U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.) submitted a $15 million budget request to pay for assessments and repair or replacement of the Blackfeet homes, according to his aide Sarah Dudley. Baucus, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, also requested $2 million for the Crow Reservation, where other mold problems are affecting several dozen other houses as well.

Dudley adds that Baucus is working through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to get a $30-million boost in a HUD “Healthy Homes” fund that, in part, covers mold assessment and abatement. Some of that money, if approved, could potentially be directed to the Crow and Blackfeet reservations, she says.

“Obviously, the structural issues are what’s leading to the environmental health issues,” says Dudley. She adds that she’s become extremely frustrated trying to work with the federal housing agency.

“HUD and Montana HUD have been so unhelpful, it’s unbelievable,” she says.

Also working on the issue is U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R–Mont.), who recently sent staff members to the Blackfeet Reservation to meet with residents and tour some of the homes. Spokesman Dallas Lawrence says Rehberg has personally contacted HUD as well.

“We’re just waiting for the administration to give us direction what the next step should be on our end,” Lawrence says.

“As soon as we got a lawyer and the congressional folks, the tribe started listening,” Marceau says while checking off a long list of problems at his home.

“They thought we were just another group that would get frustrated and go away,” adds Mr. Grant. “We’re not.”

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