Residents fear complex is a danger zone

by: JIM CLARK, Mold is growing through the walls on a building at Plaza Townhomes.

At first glance, Plaza Townhomes, at 5802 N. Michigan Ave., does not look like a bad place to live.

Occupying two full blocks just west of Portland Community College, the 68-unit apartment complex almost looks like a smaller version of the trendy condos in the Pearl District, compete with two- and three-bedroom units, security gates and earth-tone colors.

They are just a short walk from the new coffee shops, restaurants and retail stores on North Mississippi Avenue.

But some apartment residents say the looks are deceiving. They claim the complex, owned by the Housing Authority of Portland, is hazardous to their health.

Among other things, the residents complain about mold caused in part by poor drainage and leaks. And they say pollution from Interstate 5 - located one block to the west - is poisoning the air they breathe.

Resident Sylvia Evans, 43, said she had no health problems before moving into the complex in 1990. Since then, Evans said, she has developed asthma and congestive heart failure, and all her children have asthma. They are Keyona, 22; Micha, 13; and M.I.A., 11.

'I'm on an inhaler, and so are all my children. I've learned to identify the triggers for asthma,' she said.

HAP Director Steve Rudman admits there are problems with the complex and promises to fix them. According to an inspection March 20 through March 22 conducted by HAP, they include deteriorated siding and poorly connected fan ducts.

'Many of these problems are related to the way the buildings were built, which happened before we bought it,' he said.

Although Rudman said the agency would move Evans into different housing away from the freeway if she asks, Evans said she prefers to work for changes at the Plaza Townhomes.

Upgrades and a new name

The complex was built as the Piedmont Plaza in 1973 under a U.S. Housing and Urban Development program that subsidized for-profit developers to build housing for low- and moderate-income people.

It suffered from crime and gang problems for many years, including vandalism and drive-by shootings. Residents reacted to those problems by forming the neighbors association, working with police and hiring a security company that recommended such improvements as better lighting and removing a storage area where people could hide.

After the crime problems began to subside in the late 1990s, the residents voted to change the name of the complex. The Housing Authority of Portland bought the complex in 1997. The financing came from a federal program to preserve and improve affordable housing, called the Low Income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act.

HAP has invested approximately $1 million in the complex over the past 10 years, including roof repairs, exterior lighting upgrades and interior repairs. The agency will decide what other work is needed after a complete inspection is finished in a few weeks, Rudman said.

Reports calls for changes

As the crime problems decreased, some of the residents began to focus on what they considered health-related problems at the complex, including the belief that a high percentage of them had lung and heart problems.

A number of residents, including Evans, worked with local health agencies, advocacy groups and area universities to study environmental conditions at the complex.

The results recently were published by the neighbors association as the Healthy Homes, Healthy Families Report 2006. It purports to document high levels of indoor air pollution traceable to the nearby freeway and mold growing in many apartments.

The report calls for many changes at the complex, including the installation of new windows and ceiling fans for better ventilation, ground work to help storm water flow away from the apartments and new landscaping to help 'scrub' the air of pollutants.

Rudman agrees the work needs to be done, but noted, 'We can't move the freeway.'