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13 evacuated from low-income housing building

By Bryan Richardson

Mold problems in a Manhattan Housing Authority apartment building have forced some residents to be temporarily relocated.

The structure is the Apartment Towers at 300 N. Fifth Street, which is administered by the MHA as low-income housing.

The building, completed in 1974, was strictly for the elderly and disabled until the late 1990s, when the agency began admitting people with low incomes as well.

There are 87 total apartments and 8 vacancies, not including the residents temporarily in hotels.

The maintenance staff responded Aug. 2 to an “A wing” resident’s report of a water leak in his apartment, and discovered “black mold” — diagnosed as the result of poor air quality — on the wall in the bedroom closet.

The housing authority began the process of moving residents into hotels that same day, but residents began their temporary displacements at different times.

In all, 13 residents were moved from the tower, with 12 of them staying in a hotel at least 30 days.

All but two residents moved back into the tower. The other two remain in hotels, including one who moved out within the past 30 days.

The building has A through H wings with each wing having 11 rooms. (One room is a computer room.)

An environmental inspection completed by American Metropolitan Environmental, Inc. (AMEI) on Aug. 6 and 12 revealed high levels of various types of mold in the “A wing” units, and noted they were caused primarily by humidity, periodic pipe leaks and excess condensation in the heating/cooling system.

Significantly higher levels of Penicillium/ Aspergillus spores were found in the air samples, which can be dangerous for people with compromised immune systems, those with specific mold allergies or the very young.

JoAnn Sutton, executive director of the housing authority, said the “A wing” is the only portion of the building that’s been confirmed to have mold.

However, she indicated tests had not been performed on the other wings.

One tenant, who wouldn’t disclose his name, said he had discussed the problem with others in the building.

“I don’t want to get a letter in the mail talking about ‘Get out,’ ” he said as the rationale behind remaining anonymous.

The resident said he and his neighbors believe the mold is affecting more than just the “A wing” units. He mentioned that the “B wing,” which forms a corner of the building with the “A” wing, is too close for it not to have the same problem.

Sutton said the housing authority is applying for emergency grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“Of course, you know now the government is shut down, so that’s kind of at a standstill right now,” she said.

While the process is on hold, Sutton said the housing authority has moved residents from the “A wing” and continues to identify ongoing issues.

Engineers hired by the authority are currently working on estimates on how much it would cost to fix the problem, Sutton said.

Although appliances and carpeting have been replaced, Sutton said the windows and pipe and sewer lines are still intact from when the building was first completed.

“It’s got old water lines, old sewer lines and old, inefficient windows, and an old HVAC system,” Sutton said. “We have to consider all of those things and figure out what’s the most contributory to the problem.”

Sutton noted that the authority hasn’t designated the building as uninhabitable due to the lack of clarification on what constitutes an unsuitable amount of mold.

The MHA, including Sutton’s office, is housed on the first floor of the tower.

Sutton said the housing authority does want to exercise caution, so it isn’t allowing anybody to move into the Apartment Towers currently.

“It’s possible that mold could be there,” she said. “(Each wing) has the same HVAC units and the same pipe and sewer lines. We can’t say for sure yet.”

Sutton said mold differs from other hazards such as radon and asbestos, which can be tested to see if they are at an unacceptable level.

“There is no federal, state or local authority that has said, ‘This level of mold is OK and this level of mold is not OK,’ ” Sutton said.

Brad Claussen, city building official, verified that there are no definitive ratings to identify the extent of a mold problem.

“If you go test the air outside your office right now, there’s probably mold,” he said.

Although the city doesn’t inspect the tower, Claussen said a sight-and-smell test is conducted for mold: If you can see and smell the mold, it needs to be addressed. 

Inspections for the apartment tower are done by HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center every one, two or three years, depending on the score.

The evaluation includes not only the building inspection, but inspections of finances, management and the capital fund as well.

Sutton said the last inspection was in December of 2012. The building received a 35/40 for the physical building and 86/100 overall to give it a “standard” score, which means the next inspection is scheduled for 2014.

Although the city doesn’t do inspections of MHA properties, it does maintain involvement with the housing authority.

Sutton and Clausen both confirmed that MHA administrators met with city fire and code officials about the mold concerns within the past month.

Members of the MHA board of commissioners are appointed by the mayor and city commission.

Usha Reddi is the city commission liaison on the housing authority board.

Reddi said her job is to make sure the city knows what’s going on. She said the goal is for the city to provide assistance where it can.

“It’s a very collaborative effort,” she said.

The Manhattan Housing Authority owns and operates six public housing buildings in the city.

It receives its funding from HUD.

The MHA was run and regulated by the city government until 2000.

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