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Families sicken and die in mold-plagued HUD housing

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BROWNING, Mont. ? 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 tribal 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 much of the winter. The mold, exacerbated by plumbing leaks, also engulfed an adjacent bathroom, which they've sealed off with duct tape and blocked with a bookcase to keep their children out.

The LaPier family lives in one of 153 reservation homes constructed with wooden foundations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assembled with wood pressure-treated with toxic chromated copper arsenate, also known as 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. Residents are purchasing most of the houses through HUD's "mutual self-help" program, which allows the homes eventually to be privately owned.

Housing officials say that under the contracts, residents are expected to perform most of their own maintenance, except for repairing damage 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 it's not their fault.

For their part, HUD officials are now 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," said an agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., who insisted that her name not be used as a condition for providing the comments. She maintained 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 said.

But tribal officials and resident activists clearly think the federal agency, which holds the purse strings and provided oversight for the two reservation projects that included wooden foundations, 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."

Health problems alleged

Some of the wood foundations are rotting and pulling apart, despite a 50-year "guarantee" when the homes were built. Uneven settling and deterioration from the harsh northern Montana 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.

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Terry Gray, who also lives in the same "Little Browning" housing project as the LaPier family, says a housing authority 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. When you ask for help, they just give you the run-around."

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, took 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 four 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.

Henry Butterfly, who has lived with his wife in one of the houses since 1980, has unexplained and chronic breathing difficulties. His wife is nearly incapacitated with a nerve disease and kidney problems.

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

Committee members point to the mold, the CCA preservatives used on the foundations and high radon readings in some of the structures as the basis for their concerns, as well as testimony from residents who worry that their homes are unhealthy. Part of what drove the group's creation was the recent mold emergency on North Dakota's Turtle Lake Indian Reservation, where a bloc of impacted houses is being replaced by the federal government.

"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."

Next week: Who is to blame?