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Public housing needs rehab work

Structures built in 1989 show more problems than expected for their age?
by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN Easton Ridge resident Stacey Sherfield points out mold growing on her apartment's siding in the 264-unit affordable housing complex of Easton Ridge at 9009 S.E. Causey Ave., in unincorporated Clackamas County.

It's common knowledge among residents of public housing project Easton Ridge that the collection of buildings about a quarter-mile north of Clackamas Town Center needs a lot of work.

Siding is green with grime, paint is peeling around windows, and cracked asphalt in the parking lots almost always has standing water. No one knows the full extent of problems, but the county estimates $21 million will be necessary to rehabilitate the 264-unit affordable housing complex at 9009 S.E. Causey Ave.

'One of the biggest issues on the site is the drainage, and we've only got to the tip of the iceberg on that,' said Brian Sweeney, an architect contracted by the county.

Easton resident Stacey Sherfield echoed this concern, saying her two grade-school-age children can't play outside except for two days during the average year.

'The minute it rains around here, the whole courtyard is a swamp,' Sherfield said.

Excessive moisture around the complex may cause other issues that Sherfield blames for her family's asthma attacks.

'The mold around the windows has been a big issue for us, and when we complained, they fixed it right away, but it came right back,' said Sherfield's husband, Jason. 'We really loved this place when we first moved in here four years ago, but it's really slid downhill since then,' he added.

Colby McCormick, another Easton resident, said he's taken to fixing the problems himself rather than waiting for a response. But McCormick lamented that there's nothing he can do about moldy siding, leaky gutters and buildings that overall look like they're leaning.

At a work session last week, the Clackamas County Housing Authority discussed a preliminary calculation of about $9 million in county-backed bonds to address Easton's myriad issues. The department proposes to use its construction budget and an $8-million refinancing of previous bonds to cover the remainder of the project.

According to their published timeline, county staff recommended that the Board of County Commissioners approve a resolution on Oct. 20 authorizing requests for proposals. Commissioners, acting as the Housing Authority's governing body, would then face approval of the architectural and engineering contract on Nov. 17.

It took elected leadership by surprise that the 1980s-era building was already showing so many problems.

'We didn't anticipate these issues when we purchased this property (in 1996),' said County Chair Charlotte Lehan.

Public health response

Mold in houses or buildings is not necessarily age-related, according to Cathryn Cushing, spokesperson for the state of Oregon's Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Program.

'Buildings can be updated and potential mold-causing problems can be fixed. Likewise, shoddy new construction can get moldy, too,' Cushing said.

Asthma has lots of triggers, and it's difficult to tease out which trigger is causing the problem. To pin asthma on just one trigger, such as mold, is virtually impossible without a lot of personal data the state and county don't have.

Clackamas County is response-driven when it comes to allergies and mold and isn't required to do the same amount of tracking for viruses such as the flu. Asthma rates have been fairly stable in Clackamas County; the age-adjusted rate is 10 percent, which is the same as the state average.

Dr. Paul Lewis, the tri-county deputy health officer and associate professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University, was not aware of complaints specific to Clackamas County.

'We've got an ancient public housing stock, and the county's doing everything they can to improve their portion of it, just like the other counties who are struggling,' Lewis said

Christine Stone, a communications official for the state's public health division, has lived in a Lake Oswego apartment where she thought black mold on the windows might be triggering her asthma.

'When I moved, it stopped, but I also signed up for comprehensive health coverage at that time, so it's hard to say whether it was the moving or the medications that turned things around for me,' Stone said.

Cushing recommended that members of the public having problems with asthma contact their health care provider and keep in mind that smoking can worsen asthma.

Financing for project

Easton's one-bedroom, 717-square-foot apartments rent for $640 per month and up to $740 for a 1,010-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with two bathrooms.

The property has remained at least 95-percent occupied for the past few years, according to Cindy Becker, the county's director of health, housing and human services. Only apartments on the first floor would have to be vacated during construction, and the remaining 80-percent occupancy would still provide enough cash flow to make bond payments.

Commissioner Ann Lininger said she hoped that by rehabilitating the buildings now, the occupancy rate will remain high.

'This is an extremely typical way to rehabilitate a property of this age that's experiencing extremely typical problems for this region,' she said.

Before construction begins next July, Commissioners Paul Savas and Jamie Damon recommended the county work with Water Environment Services to determine if an underground spring is causing the problems and if a demonstration project could qualify for extra funds.