Sept. 9: This post has been updated.
At least 70 of the 315 houses that Habitat for Humanity has built in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005 have tested positive for corrosion problems caused by defective Chinese drywall, leaving people who were once grateful to Habitat for their homes feeling betrayed by the organization they had trusted.
The number of homes affected by the drywall problem is expected to grow, because Habitat is testing samples from 89 more houses where corrosion has been spotted.
Some residents who have been assured by Habitat that their drywall is fine say they, too, are now discovering the telltale signs of defective drywall, including corroded wiring and air-conditioning coils. Many of the affected homes are in Musicians’ Village, the heavily publicized community that Habitat built for New Orleans’ displaced musicians, with help from Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.
For more than a year and a half, the New Orleans branch of Habitat for Humanity had been insisting that the drywall it used to build Musicians’ Village and other homes throughout the city was safe. The nonprofit continued using Chinese-manufactured drywall in its houses long after news of its defects had spread throughout the nation and long after most builders had shunned the product.
“It’s like we had been given this dream, and it’s just been shattered,” said Jesse Moore, a singer and songwriter who began moving out of his home this week.
Jim Pate, the executive director of the New Orleans-based Habitat affiliate, defended the organization’s response to the drywall problem.
“The last thing we want, at all, is to have our partner families in an unsafe home,” Pate said. “We did testing and reported test results to them. We weren’t trying, in any way, to cover anything up.”
But interviews with dozens of Habitat homeowners and a half-dozen former Habitat employees showed that the organization ignored repeated warnings that something was wrong with the drywall.
When employees complained in 2007 that the drywall seemed soft and brittle, they were told to go ahead and use it because drywall was scarce and Habitat’s construction schedule was tight, said Andrew Zahurance, a carpenter who worked on some of the homes. Employee complaints about the drywall intensified in early 2009, after news broke that some Chinese drywall was emitting sulfur gases that could ruin appliances, corrode electrical wiring and trigger respiratory problems.
When Habitat homeowners started seeing those news reports, Habitat reassured them their homes were safe. A March 2009 letter said the drywall may have been “imported” but “in an abundance of caution” it had been tested and “there is no danger to homeowners.” (The testing method Habitat used was discredited later that year.)
Habitat didn’t stop using Chinese drywall until November 2009, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission directed it not to use or transport its remaining Chinese drywall unless it notified the CPSC first.
By that time, Habitat’s nearly $1 million stockpile of Chinese drywall — 120,000 sheets of wallboard made by Taishan Gypsum Co. — had been used in more than 200 homes in and around New Orleans. Some was also sold or distributed to other area nonprofits, which built about 400 more homes, Habitat has said.
Habitat didn’t begin testing the 280 homes it believes it built with Chinese drywall until almost a year later, after ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Musicians’ Village residents had corroded wiring in their homes and that their complaints were being ignored. It isn’t testing the 35 homes it said it built this year using U.S.-made drywall.
Last month Habitat began notifying homeowners that it will gut the affected homes and move the residents into apartment complexes where they can live rent-free until the construction is finished. Habitat will also pay to store their possessions. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says that in order to fix a home with defective drywall, all the drywall and the wiring must be ripped out and replaced.
Pate said Habitat is “going above and beyond” what other builders are doing for homeowners.
The former workers say that the drywall was among construction problems caused by Habitat’s rush to help rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, when donations were pouring in from people throughout the nation. According to Habitat’s tax filings, donations to the New Orleans branch ballooned after the hurricane hit, from about $650,000 in 2004 to about $28 million in 2006.
From Trust to Loss of Faith
When reporters with ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began interviewing Musicians’ Village residents in May, most said they were confident their homes weren’t contaminated by Chinese drywall because Habitat had told them so in numerous letters – and because they trusted the organization that had made it possible for them to fulfill their dreams of owning a home.
Habitat homeowners in the New Orleans area generally pay (PDF) about $75,000 for the houses, making mortgage payments of about $550 to $600 a month for 30 years. They also must put about 350 hours of “sweat equity” into their homes.
Many of those same homeowners have now discovered that their homes are, in fact, contaminated and that they’ll have to move out while Habitat repairs them.
Brian Morgan, a former Catholic monk who is now a classical organist, suffers from asthma, and he said his health began deteriorating after he moved into his Musicians’ Village home. But he still believed Habitat’s 2009 letter assuring him that his home was safe.
In July, however, an inspector hired by Habitat opened Morgan’s air-conditioning closet and an electrical outlet and found that copper elements in both of them had turned black.
“I could have done that myself a long time ago, if I knew that’s what it took,” Morgan said. “All this time, all they had to do was send out some letters asking everyone to open up their A/C closets or an outlet and check to see if there was any copper that looked blackened. Instead, they sent us letters saying ‘don’t worry, there’s no problem.’”
When asked why Habitat didn’t tell homeowners how to detect Chinese drywall, Pate said people should have been able to figure that out for themselves.
“You got to recall, this did not occur in a vacuum,” he said. “It was on the television, it’s on the website, even a cursory search would lead you straight to ‘how do you know you’ve got the Chinese drywall.’”
“Our very famous Saints football coach, Sean Payton,” had the problem, Pate said. “So it was out there.”
Morgan said he has lost faith in Habitat and doesn’t trust its offer to remediate his home. Instead, he wants Habitat to buy it back.
He said he called and e-mailed Habitat officials almost daily in August, but he felt he was being ignored. So he filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish court, seeking to recover the $75,000 he paid for his home.
Pate said the organization is ready to buy Morgan’s house.
“We’ve been trying to get him in for a week so that we could set up an appointment to buy him out,” Pate said.
Morgan said he has been available and has heard nothing from Habitat.
“If they had answered my questions right away, I would not have gone to a lawyer,” he said.
Testing, Yes, but With Confusing Results
Habitat homeowners whose houses have been declared safe from drywall problems are also complaining about their treatment.
Habitat is sending inspectors to the 280 homes it believes it built with Chinese drywall. If there are visible signs of corrosion, a piece of drywall is cut from a wall and sent to a lab for testing. If there is no sign of corrosion, no test is done.
But some homeowners say air-conditioning coils and electrical sockets that were clear when Habitat inspected them in July are now turning black – and that Habitat hasn’t agreed to test them again. It’s known that houses with Chinese drywall often don’t begin giving off the corrosive gases until a year or two after they were built.
Cristian and Alexis Duque and their 22-month-old son, Tyce, moved into their home in February 2009. This summer, Cristian, a singer and guitarist, went on tour while his wife and son went to New Jersey. While the family was gone, a friend let the Habitat inspector in to check their house, and the report was good: There was no corrosion on their air-conditioning coils or in the electrical sockets, so their drywall didn’t need to be tested.
But when the Duques came home in August, they discovered that their air-conditioning coil had begun to blacken.
“So I said no offense, but can I have my board tested anyway?” said Cristian Duque.
Habitat told him it hadn’t yet decided whether to re-test homes. So the Duques kept calling.
“I tried being the super-polite mom, and calling day after day,” said Alexis Duque.
Finally Cristian went to the Habitat office.
“The only way to get attention from Habitat is to go right in through the front door,” said Cristian. “I said I really need it tested, I have a 22-month-old son and I need to know what’s going on in my house.”
He got a call two days later.
“We’ll get back to you about testing,” he said he was told.
The Duques say that homes on both sides of theirs have tested positive. Since all the homes were built at roughly the same time, the Duques think it’s unlikely that theirs could be safe, while their neighbors’ homes are not.
“All anyone wants to hear, is I’m sorry,” said Alexis Duque. “But it’s like nobody over there has the ability to empathize.”
“If they had just said, ‘look we are having a hard time with this, but we’re working on it,’ we wouldn’t be so frustrated,” Cristian Duque said as he hoisted his young son in his arms.
Problems Beyond Musicians’ Village
In St. Bernard Parish, adjacent to New Orleans, some of the homes Habitat built along Gina Drive also have Chinese drywall problems.
Judy Summerlin’s house was completed in early 2009 and she said Habitat told her flat-out that no Chinese drywall was used in the neighborhood.
“Now we find out they were keeping the truth from us the whole time?” Summerlin said. “It took almost two years to get something done and they only test my house a few weeks ago? It’s just been a nightmare. We’re not young and we’re not healthy. We can’t take this anymore.”
Summerlin said copper in her air conditioner and electrical outlets has turned black, and last week a test of a drywall sample from her house confirmed it emits corrosive gases.
Summerlin is particularly upset because she suffers from congestive heart failure, and a few months after moving into her house she began having trouble breathing properly.
“My doctor keeps changing my medications. He’s been trying to get things right, but he didn’t know what was going on,” Summerlin said.
She said Habitat’s offer to remediate her home isn’t enough – she believes it should also reimburse her for her doctor visits.
“They left us here to suffer in these homes, to be sick for all this time and be ignored,” she said. “The last five years since Katrina we’ve just been traumatized, all of us. We lost our homes, our jobs, our lives. And how long was Habitat going to let us suffer in these homes before they did something?”
A bit further down Gina Drive, Edna Guerra is still waiting for her test results. But the copper line feeding into her air conditioner and a copper pipe above her water heater have both turned black, and reporters from ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune could detect the faint chemical smell that lingers in homes built with Chinese drywall.
Guerra, a widow in her 60s, believes Habitat has turned a blind eye to her neighborhood’s drywall problems and to other defects plaguing the homes, including warped floors. She said she called and called to Habitat to try to get help, but it never came.
“I can’t get through to them. They are always telling me that they are out in the field, or this or that,” she said.
Back in Musicians’ Village, Gabriel Velasco is also disappointed by Habitat’s slow response to the drywall problem. His air conditioner has failed at least three times in two years. He said he took cold showers at night when he had trouble sleeping in 90-degree heat.
But Velasco thinks that Habitat is now doing the best it can to make homeowners like him whole again.
When he finally had his meeting with Habitat last week to discuss the repairs to his home, he said, “I walked out with a smile on my face.”
Reaching to the Stars for Help
Jesse Moore, the singer and songwriter who lives in Musicians’ Village, thinks Harry Connick Jr. should do more to help them.
“Harry could probably make it happen with one phone call,” said Moore, who is waiting to move out of his home while it is remediated. “He could say, ‘hey you guys have my name on this project, take care of these people. Now.’”
Some Habitat homeowners tried to draw more attention to their plight when the national media arrived to cover the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last month. But when CNN’s Anderson Cooper broadcast his live show from Musicians’ Village for several hours, the drywall problem wasn’t mentioned.
Leise Dettmer, a painter and musician, said she became so frustrated that she drew a makeshift sign saying “We have toxic drywall in ’da village” and tried to hold it up in the crowd that had gathered behind Cooper.
But she said Habitat’s communications director, Aleis Tusa, stopped her.
“Liese, Liese, Liese! Stop that!” she said Tusa told her.
Dettmer said Tusa then chastised her, saying, “I will remember that when you come to the table.”
Tusa told ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune that she had talked to Dettmer but that “no threats were made.”
Tusa said it was “inappropriate” for Dettmer to be there with her sign, because the event was supposed to celebrate the AmeriCorps volunteers who had worked on the Habitat homes. She said Habitat wasn’t trying to hide the Chinese drywall problem and that Dettmer should have found another time to talk to the media.
“There were reporters out there all day. There were plenty of opportunities,” she said.
Although Dettmer’s house has tested negative for corrosion, she said the copper components in her electrical appliances are turning black and she wants another test. But she said Habitat hasn’t responded to her request.
Pate told ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune that it will retest homes if the owners aren’t satisfied with the initial inspections or test results.
Update: Harry Connick Jr. sent this statement through a spokesperson: “It broke my heart when I learned recently that like so many others along the Gulf Coast, some of the homes in the Village were built with defective drywall. Branford and I are deeply sorry that these families who have suffered so much already, have to face yet another setback. We have reached out to Habitat and have been assured that a fix is on the way. They will move the affected homeowners into temporary housing and have hired contractors to gut the houses and re-build the interior – this is the right thing to do in the face of this very unfortunate situation for all involved. Once the homes have been fixed and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music is completed next year, our dream of providing a community for musicians will finally be realized.”