Water problems at Eernisse trigger concerns

Maggie Burgess, 8, runs towards the playground at Eernisse, past a sign that notes the project is adjacent to a wetland. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Maggie Burgess, 8, runs towards the playground at Eernisse, past a sign that notes the project is adjacent to a wetland.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Vashon HouseHold is facing what executive director Sam Hendricks calls a serious “water intrusion” problem at its newly built and much-celebrated Eernisse Apartments, an affordable housing complex that is home to about 75 people.

Over the past several months, the organization has hired a lawyer, brought in three expert firms to help it address the problem and spent $50,000 from its reserves to provide an immediate short-term fix.

The water intrusion stems from “serious errors and deficiencies during the construction process” two years ago, Hendricks said. The organization’s lawyer, Doug Elston of Bellevue, said Vashon HouseHold is in the process of determining “what legal recourse might be available” as it pursues a permanent solution.

The water — moisture in some crawlspaces, standing water in others — has also raised health concerns, Hendricks said. Mild to moderate mold growth has been discovered in the crawlspaces of all seven buildings that make up the complex, although testing in the units by an environmental assessment firm has found no mold growth in the actual apartments, Hendricks said.

Currently, he said, the organization is confident that no tenants are at any health risk.

Still, the potential for mold, which can have wide-ranging health impacts, has made the issue a serious one for the small nonprofit, which has won accolades over the years for the quality of its projects and its commitment to affordable housing.

Staff members have poured “hundreds of work hours” into addressing the problems, Hendricks said.

“When we’re dealing with health and safety concerns and the welfare of our tenants, those are the things that are of greatest concern to us,” Hendricks said. “Before we had the answers to some of these questions, these were the kinds of things that kept our staff up at night.”

The issue has also been a source of considerable contention and concern among tenants. Some have said the organization has handled the problems well and forthrightly; others have said they believe they’ve been made ill by mold since moving into the apartment building and contend Vashon HouseHold has not been aggressive enough in its response.

None of the upset tenants, however, would speak on the record, nor did any of them have any independent documentation showing mold growth in their apartments.

“For some people, it’s been a real point of contention. Some lines were drawn in the sand right away,” said Morgan Schaengold, a single mother with a 6-year-old son who lives at Eernisse.

She said she, too, was concerned when she first got notice of the mold in the crawlspaces and instantly wanted to know how the organization would determine if her unit was mold-free.

“I wanted some access to the information coming from the experts,” she said. “I wanted to know who the experts were and if they were affiliated with the people who constructed the place.”

Vashon HouseHold officials were forthcoming, she said.

“I didn’t feel anything was being hidden or kept from me. … On the whole, I’ve felt very supported, even through the bumpy parts.”

But Hilary Emmer, a civic activist who prepares taxes free of charge for low-income Islanders, including some residents at Eernisse, said she heard from some of her clients that they felt the organization was not responsive enough to their concerns.

“The people who were talking to me came to me because they felt they were not getting heard and that I could help them get heard,” Emmer said.

In December, she called each of the organization’s board members to discuss the situation with them. She reached three; others on the 10-member board did not call her back, she said.

The board members she reached, she said, “told me they’re doing the best they can.”

Hendricks, who often speaks passionately about his commitment to decent housing for people of moderate means, said the organization sent out a notice about the mold in the crawlspaces within two hours after learning about it and before receiving a formal written report.

“We believe it is not appropriate for mold growth to be present, particularly in a new building,” the Nov. 4, 2008, notice to tenants said. “We take this very seriously, and we intend to take immediate and appropriate action.”

Since then, he said, the organization has sent out 13 notices to tenants apprising them of the situation. Workers, he added, have also undertaken a number of short-term remediation efforts since the Nov. 4 discovery — from sealing off crawlspaces to painting fungicidal paint on the mold found under the homes.

“There was never a point when we were sitting on this problem,” Hendricks said.

Eernisse, named for Fred Eernisse, the painter-farmer who once owned the property where the complex sits, represents Vashon HouseHold’s first foray into the more complicated world of owning and managing a large, family-oriented apartment building. (Its other rental projects are for seniors or people with disabilities.)

The 26-unit complex sits off of Bank Road behind Island Lumber — a cluster of townhouse-style buildings painted in greens, oranges and reds, with covered porches and large front windows overlooking a fenced wetland.

The units range in size, from one-bedroom to three. All of the units are rented at below-market rates; some of the tenants receive government-subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay their rent.

It was a celebratory affair when the $6 million project was completed in September 2007, and Hendricks said the staff remains proud of the project and its contribution to the housing picture on Vashon.

“We think it’s a great facility and a great place to live,” he said.

But problems with the project were discovered soon after tenants moved in. Water in the crawlspaces was first detected in January 2008, when a maintenance worker, concerned about a washing machine in the laundry room that vibrated too much, went into the crawlspace to see if he could make the floor more level, Hendricks said.

The project was still under warranty by its contractor, Triple D Construction in Bellevue, and Hendricks had the firm return to Eernisse to fix problems that were causing water to enter the crawlspaces.

The company’s employees undertook a number of measures in early 2008, Hendricks said, including repairing footing drains that weren’t connected and pipes that had gotten crushed during the construction process. The firm also pumped water out of crawlspaces, he said.

In early fall 2008, when the rains began to fall, Hendricks had his staff take another look to see if Triple D’s work earlier that year had adequately addressed the problems. When staff discovered water again, Hendricks said, he had Triple D return. Again, the company drained water; workers also painted fungicidal paint on those crawlspace walls where standing water had been discovered and mold was beginning to grow.

The situation escalated later that fall, however, when Hendricks’ staff discovered light mold growth in crawlspaces where no standing water had been found, he said. “We realized the problem was more pervasive than we had thought,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks then contacted Elston, a lawyer who specializes in construction problems, and upon his advice brought in three professional firms — a construction defects investigation firm to determine what was wrong with the structures and how it had happened; a construction firm that specializes in repairing buildings with water-related issues; and Rose Environmental of Seattle, a firm that specializes in indoor building health.

The construction firm undertook a number of measures, including sealing up hatches in each of the units that provided access to the crawlspaces; outdoor, exterior hatches were installed in their place, Hendricks said.

Rose Environmental, meanwhile, conducted a random sampling of the units, checking seven apartments in the seven buildings to determine if mold had seeped into people’s living quarters. In two units, the firm noted in its report, “a light amount of fungal hyphal fragments (potentially above typical background accumulation) was identified. These results are not indicative of mold growth within the unit nor likely associated with contamination occurring through floor penetrations.”

Even so, the firm said, a “cursory cleaning,” including vacuuming with a high-efficiency filter, should take place. Based on that recommendation, Vashon HouseHold paid for cleaners to come in and thoroughly clean the two units, Hendricks said.

This week, Hendricks said, Elston will contact Triple D Construction to let the firm know about the extent of the problems Vashon HouseHold has discovered at Eernisse.

He declined to say whether the organization will sue the construction firm. But he noted that costly repairs that will provide a long-term solution to the project’s problems are still in order; he also said the $50,000 Vashon HouseHold has laid out to provide short-term fixes needs to be “restored by those who are responsible.”

Some residents, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the fact that the homes they so eagerly embraced a year or two ago have some serious construction flaws.

Those who expressed upset said they no longer have faith in the management at Eernisse, contending the organization has been difficult and even hostile to them. Initially, the group spoke on the record and then declined to use their names, saying they feared reprisals from the organization.

Others, however, said they’ve witnessed an organization working hard to do right by its tenants in the face of a tough set of circumstances. They also said they’re glad to have found a home that’s affordable and attractive on Vashon, where escalating housing prices have forced some people off the Island.

“Mold is common, but it shouldn’t happen in a new building; water under buildings shouldn’t happen,” said Jonathan Burgess, who works at Sawbones and lives at Eernisse with his wife and four children.

Even so, he said, “We’re generally grateful to live here. … For the most part, it’s gone well.”

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