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Millions to be spent on mouldy public housing

Vancouver Sun - Friday, September 14, 2001

by William Boei

Regional public housing authorities said Thursday they will spend in the tens of millions of dollars to fix
leaks and try to eradicate mould growing in at least seven public-housing projects in Greater Vancouver.

The Greater Vancouver Housing Corporation also acknowledged some moulds are toxic and may be affecting tenants' health. The GVHC admitted past repairs to public-housing complexes have worked only temporarily and led to problems reoccurring after a few years.

"Hallelujah. It's about time," said Violet Gensow, a tenant in the Maple Vine Court project in Richmond, where some repairs have already been done.

"I kept smelling mould for months and months," said Gensow, adding that mould discovered behind her refrigerator was "so thick it was growing white hair. It was black, green, every colour under the sun."

Gensow said her seven-year-old daughter is borderline asthmatic and suffers from allergies.

"There's a lot of children in here that we believe are sick because of this mould," she added.

She is pleased the GVHC is finally tackling the problem, but said new mould has already been found behind a wall in her unit since the first phase of repairs to the complex was completed in July.

GVHC manager Garry Charles said work has begun on two complexes and engineering investigations have been completed on several others.

Maintenance and repairs have been done repeatedly on some of the housing projects, "but a similar kind of membrane breakdown or whatever is occurring. So we really need to address the issue in a much more substantial way," Charles said in an interview.

The first of two repair phases on one project, completed earlier this year, cost $1.7 million, Charles said, and the second phase will likely cost nearly as much.

He agreed the total cost for the seven projects will likely be in the low tens of millions of dollars. The money will come from existing replacement reserve funds.

"This pinches and makes budgets tight," Charles said. "But on some of these properties, unless you make major expenditures, you're not going to have a successful long-term resolution."

Leaky public-housing projects suffer from problems that have more to do with their age -- 15 to 20 years and some older -- than with current leaky-condo problem, Charles said.

Work will include major renovations, including "redoing exterior walls to deal with rain-screen issues, changing roof lines where that's necessary to develop overhangs, and a variety of those kinds of approaches."

In addition to major work on seven projects, the GVHC is experimenting with new air exchange systems to prevent minor mould growth in other complexes and training staff to deal with small-scale mould cleanups, he said.

The GVHC operates about 50 public housing projects in Greater Vancouver, with 3,400 units and more than 10,000 tenants.

Linda Hauser, a long-time tenant activist who lives in a Surrey project, said she has been hounding the GVHC for years to deal with leak and mould problems.

"This didn't just happen in one day," Hauser said. "People have been coming to me over the years and saying they've had problems with mould. It was poor management."

In a news release, the GVHC said it recognizes that "some types of mould and fungi have been linked to health problems."

It said it plans to develop a policy for mould removal that complies with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

"Where problematic mould or fungi have been found in GVHC housing units, outside contractors have been used to remove the growth, and implement remedial measures to protect against re-growth," it said.

Leaky-home owner advocate Carmen Maretic said she is pleased something is being done about public housing, but said the provincial government needs to act to protect all residents.

"Building envelope failure has been an issue in all of our housing in B.C.," said Maretic, who speaks for Compensation and Accountability to Soaked Homeowners Society (CASH).

In many condo complexes, decisions about fixing mould problems are coming down to fights between the healthy majority and a minority of owners whose health is affected by moulds, she said. "And it's often the healthy people who prevail."

Maretic said if the provincial government declares a disaster, it can trigger a flow of federal funding that can be used to repair all kinds of housing, as well as leaky public schools.

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