Black mold warps family’s dream into nightmare
Toxins force evacuation of Habitat for Humanity in Knox County
Sunday, June 17, 2007
By Kevin Sampier
of the Journal Star
Galesburg - The West family’s pursuit of the American dream - owning their own home - has turned into a nightmare.
Unable to purchase a home through traditional means, the Wests worked with Habitat for Humanity to buy their first home. They were left with a house filled with black, toxic mold; children with health problems; and the loss of thousands of dollars and hours of their time. They are now living in a rental home.
It started with a small black spot on the kitchen ceiling.
“We thought we had a leak,” said Amy West, who worked to build the Habitat for Humanity house with the agency. “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
When West’s husband, Jeremy West, went into the attic in March to inspect what they thought was a water leak from the roof, he found the black mold growing on wood rafters and insulation across the attic. The mold eventually grew across windows in the living room and kitchen and latched onto walls in the main living quarters.
"On the way up into the attic, he said, ‘We have a problem here,’ " she said.
The Wests had been living in the house at 2085 E. First St. since June 2002 with their three children, who are 9, 7 and 5 years old.
Through the Habitat for Humanity program of Knox County, the Wests helped build the home with Habitat workers and received a no-interest, 20-year mortgage.
Habitat for Humanity is a charitable organization that helps families who are in financial need to own homes of their own.
The family paid the monthly mortgage of $318 per month and added an extra $82 each month to pay the house off even faster.
When the mold was discovered, representatives from Habitat for Humanity said the home was no longer covered by the one-year contractor’s warranty, Amy West said. The homeowner’s insurance wouldn’t cover the costs to inspect or remove the mold because it was a building defect, she added.
Working full-time jobs, raising three children and being financially eligible for a Habitat for Humanity home in the first place meant there wasn’t a lot of money left over for much else.
The Wests went ahead and paid $490 for a mold inspection.
“She had a ton of different types of mold,” said Randy Stufflebeem, owner of B-Sure Home Inspection and Environmental Co., including Stachybotrys.
One “raw count” of Stachybotrys mold in the air is considered elevated, Stufflebeem said, and is a cause for concern. The Wests’ home had a raw count of 848.
“That’s scary,” Stufflebeem said, as the toxic black mold can cause significant health risks after long-term exposure, including respiratory problems and illness.
“That (type of mold) by far is the worst of the worst,” he said.
The Wests say the mold problem began in the crawl space of the home, where several inches of standing water was discovered. They said Habitat for Humanity used a sump pump in the crawl space while the home was being built but took it out when it was finished and didn’t tell them they would need one permanently.
Jim Ecklund is the executive director of the Knox County Habitat for Humanity program. He said a sump pump was used during the construction phase because rain water had collected in the crawl space before the home’s roof was built. After that, it was taken out.
“We’ll obviously put a sump pump in for the next owner,” Ecklund said.
The Wests say they aren’t the only ones who have had mold problems with Habitat homes. They have a newspaper article from California, where a similar incident with Habitat went to court. The Wests say the same thing has happened to homes in Warren County and in the Quad Cities.
“Obviously there’s some flaw in their design of housing,” Jeremy West said.
Ecklund says there is no design flaw and points to the agency’s record.
“The bottom line is, Habitat has built 36 houses in Knox County, and this is the only one that’s had that issue,” Ecklund said.
The house was approved by city building inspectors, who made sure it met various codes, Ecklund said. However, he acknowledged mold problems in other Habitat homes.
“I’m sure there have been other instances,” Ecklund said. “I’m aware of the one in Warren County.”
Ecklund and the Wests tried to find a middle ground that would satisfy both sides.
The Wests say Ecklund wanted to set off fogger-style “bombs” to kill the mold and then paint the walls with a special mold-killing paint but wanted to add $5,000 plus material costs to their mortgage.
Stufflebeem said a fog bomb, similar to those used to kill insects, would be ineffective against the mold because it wouldn’t reach behind drywall, and even if it killed the mold, it’s still just as dangerous dead as it is alive.
“Whether it’s alive or dead, it’s just as infective,” he said.
West said her children have developed asthma and allergies from living in the home.
The Wests have since moved out of the Habitat house and now live in a rental home in Galesburg. The family recently signed the deed over to Habitat and was let out of the contract.
The house will be cleared of mold next week with the fog bombs, and dirt will be added around the outside edge of the home as backfill to prevent water from entering the home, Ecklund said. It will then be readied for a new family, he said.
But the ordeal didn’t come without a cost. Amy West said she lost nearly $13,000 on the house and received a $1,500 refund from Habitat.
But the experience hasn’t turned the family against their dream of home ownership.
“I want a house of my own,” she said, and sees the past few months as a learning experience.
So does Ecklund, who said this incident can be used to teach other Habitat for Humanity homeowners about mold and the problems associated with it.
“That’s a big part of home ownership, being aware of moisture,” Ecklund said.
Kevin Sampier can be reached at 686-3041 or email@example.com.