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Residents sue over defective homes

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GREAT FALLS, Mont. ? A group of Blackfeet Indian Reservation residents is suing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Blackfeet Tribe's housing agency over 153 homes built with chemically treated wooden foundations.

The class-action lawsuit was recently filed in U.S. District Court in Great Falls. It alleges that HUD and Blackfeet Housing officials knew that the foundations were defective and incompatible with the reservation's harsh environment, but they built them anyway. Also named in the litigation is HUD Secretary Melvin Martinez and four current members of Blackfeet Housing's board of directors.

The lawsuit states that many of the foundations leak, and ensuing water and sewage problems have caused the spread of mold and other health-threatening substances.

In addition, the plaintiffs say, the foundation wood was pressure treated with toxic chromated copper arsenate, also known as CCA. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that manufacturers of CCA-treated wood will voluntarily phase out of the product by 2004 because of health concerns.

Plaintiffs in the case are Martin Marceau, Candice LaMott, Julie Rattler, Joseph Rattler Jr. and Deana Mountain Chief, all Blackfeet tribal members who are either buying or leasing the homes. The plaintiffs contend they represent a whole class of residents who have been adversely affected by the defective dwellings, which were constructed across the reservation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The group is represented by Billings attorneys Tom Towe and Jeffrey Simkovic.

"The housing authority has sold homes to representative plaintiffs and other class members that are substandard, unsafe, unsuitable, unsanitary, unhealthy and uninhabitable," the six-count complaint states. The plaintiffs maintain that HUD shares responsibility for the problems because the agency allegedly mandated their design and supervised, approved and paid for their construction. They also contend they were at the mercy of the agency and the housing authority, which were trusted to provide homes that were both durable and safe.

"The parties are inherently unequal in their bargaining positions in that Blackfeet Housing and HUD, with access to large amounts of funds, clearly had a superior position to each of the (plaintiffs) who are lower-income Americans by definition," the lawsuit states. "There was no other alternative for them to obtain housing."

Residents of some of the homes, appalled that their foundations were buckling and seeping, say they complained to tribal leaders for years without being heard. Last year the Glacier Homes Committee was organized by residents concerned that their health was being compromised by mold, CCA residue and high levels of cancer-causing radon gas in their basements. The group persuaded the state's congressional delegation to take note of the problems, and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., submitted a $15 million budget request for home assessment and potential replacement.

But Marceau says he and the other residents can't wait for the political process to address their needs. The lawsuit alleges that HUD has violated the National Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Tucker Act and other federal statutes. It also contends that construction of the wooden foundations violated the agency's own regulations, as well as state and local building codes. The plaintiffs want their homes replaced and the agencies punished.

"We're feeling like second-class citizens," says Marceau. "In 24 years, no one would listen to us. We've had yearly inspections, and the problems have not been solved in any way. No one seems to care. That's why we took this action."

When questioned about the housing issues earlier this year, HUD officials said it was the tribe's problem, not the agency's.

"We're not aware of the suit at this point, but if there is a suit, we can't comment on it," a HUD spokeswoman said last week.