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Blackfeet housing leans on crumbling foundation

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BROWNING, Mont. ? Leaders of the Glacier Homes Committee, organized last year to find help for families living in 153 Blackfeet Indian Reservation homes built with inadequate wooden foundations, say tribal leaders have known for years there were problems with the structures.

Now residents allege that some of the houses, paid for by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are causing health problems because of toxic mold and mildew triggered by leaky basements and poorly insulated walls that trap and hold moisture.

The wooden foundations are also treated with green-colored chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a toxic substance that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided earlier this year should be removed from commercial sale. Many of the homes, built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are falling apart, despite a 'guarantee' that they would last at least 50 years.

'We were in essence forced to take these homes from HUD,' said Martin Marceau, a 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,' countered Blackfeet Housing Authority Director Ray Miller. He says his office is working closely with the committee to get the problems fixed, whatever it takes. 'If you start blaming people, it throws up the walls, and then it takes you longer to get anything done,' Miller said.

HUD maintains that the agency is not responsible for the problems, and that it's up to the housing authority to allocate funding to replace the worst homes and renovate the rest. 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,' said an agency spokeswoman who refused to have her name used for attribution because of public affairs office policy.

'HUD does not prescribe particular building standards,' the spokeswoman said. 'HUD gives tribes the flexibility to work with materials and design that is feasible for the tribe's environment. The regulations used then and now, offered Indian housing authorities broad parameters on the design and construction of the housing. While HUD had to approve the plan, the agency did not dictate specifics on design and materials. These were left up to the Indian housing authorities.'

But Jeff Simkovic, a Billings attorney, who is advising the citizens' committee, maintains the federal agency was calling the shots, and that the inadequate foundations would not have been built if HUD hadn't allowed them.

'HUD did have a contract of adhesion with the housing authority, and they told them what to do,' he said.

'You can't consider them HUD homes,' the spokeswoman countered. 'It's not up to HUD to upkeep these homes. They've had the opportunity to apply for more money from HUD to fix these homes. I'm not aware of any specific funding requests to do so.'

According to the spokeswoman, funding was available to repair or modernize 'HUD-assisted' housing through competitive grants prior to passage of the 1996 Native American Housing Assistance and Self-determination Act (NAHASDA). Now tribes receive annual formula grants that they can earmark for specific projects. The Blackfeet Tribe currently receives about million a year under the formula, she said.

Money for housing rehabilitation is also available though the agency's Indian Community Development Block Grant program, she added.

Decades of controversy

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

'We questioned it when HUD first talked about the wood foundations,' said Blackfeet Chairman Earl Old Person, who lived in one of the homes. His wife, for whatever reason, now suffers from cancer and kidney disease.

While wood foundations are still common in some parts of the country, they are generally unsuitable for the Blackfeet Reservation's climate, said Tom McKay, the housing authority's general manager.

'Everybody knows it was wrong to use wood foundations here in Blackfeet Country, especially being so close to the mountains,' he said. But details are sketchy when it comes to determining exactly how the houses were eventually cleared for occupancy.

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, said Carl Kipp, who served on the housing board at that time.

McKay said that in 1993, when he was director of the now-defunct Blackfeet Resident Organization, his group was encouraged to apply for million in HUD funding that could have been used to repair or replace at least some of the homes. But he says the housing board at the time wouldn't recognize the citizens' group as a legitimate entity, and the application was never submitted.

According to Glacier Homes Committee co-founder Gary Grant, housing officials at one point suggested giving at least some of the homes, which are being purchased under HUD's 'mutual help' program, to residents for only apiece. Inspection records show one severely damaged house was only worth ,000, but the housing authority determined it would cost about ,000 to replace it.

'We said, 'No way, that's letting you off the hook,'' Grant said.

Don George, an Indian Health Service environmental health officer in Browning, said 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 said. 'Some of these houses have mold everywhere, and some of the molds are known to be dangerous.' He added 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 said. 'It would take an extensive epidemiological study to determine exactly what's going on.'

'Before all that is done, I don't know how you could begin to make a connection,' added Rod Gaither, the IHS infection control officer for the reservation. 'Right now, we're getting this litany of symptomology that seems to have no consistency. In the absence of an epidemiological study, we're just going on self-reported anecdotes.'

Potential help coming

According to Sarah Dudley, aide to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the Senator on March 22 submitted a million congressional budget request to pay for assessments and repair or replacement of the Blackfeet homes. Baucus, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, also requested million for the Crow Reservation, where other mold problems are affecting several dozen houses.

James Real Bird, a Crow housing official, said there are no HUD houses with wooden foundations on his reservation. He says the mold infestation there may be linked to an irrigation ditch that runs above at least some of the structures.

Dudley added that Baucus is working through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to get a million boost in a HUD 'Healthy Homes' fund that covers lead-based paint testing and remediation, mold assessment and abatement, and other related projects. Some of that money, if approved, could potentially be directed to the Crow and Blackfeet reservations in the forms of grants, she said.

'Obviously, the structural issues are what's leading to the environmental health issues,' said Dudley. She added 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 said.

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 as Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

'The congressman is fully engaged in the concerns being raised up there,' Lawrence said. 'We're just waiting for the administration to give us direction what the next step should be on our end.'

'As soon as we got a lawyer and the congressional folks, the tribe started listening,' Marceau said while checking off a laundry list of problems at his home.

'They thought we were just another group that would get frustrated and go away,' added Grant. 'We're not.'