This post has been updated.
Habitat for Humanity International has established an internal task force to research defective Chinese drywall after ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that a New Orleans branch of the non-profit built more than 200 homes with the drywall and then ignored homeowners’ complaints about it.
A Habitat spokesperson refused to answer questions about the task force or to discuss what, if any, help the organization would provide to homeowners if their houses are found to be contaminated with sulfur gas from the drywall.
Instead, Habitat headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., released a one-paragraph statement saying the task force is designed “for the purposes of researching the situation, tracking the latest guidance and data published by local, state, and federal government agencies investigating the matter, and sharing that information with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.”
Habitat homeowners in the New Orleans area generally about $75,000 for their homes, making monthly 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.
On Sunday, ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that several Habitat homeowners are concerned about health problems they believe are related to Chinese drywall and that one had complained to Habitat for more than a year about corrosion on metal surfaces and malfunctioning electronic appliances. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that large amounts of sulfur gasses coming off the board may trigger respiratory problems and corrode wiring, which can cause refrigerators, air conditioners and other electronic products to fail. The CPSC says the only way to fix the problem is to remove all drywall and wiring from the house.
For more than a year Habitat told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that it had never received a complaint about the drywall it used. But when reporters interviewed residents of a Habitat-built community in New Orleans called Musicians’ Village they found that people had complained to Habitat. Another problem also emerged during those interviews: Some of the homes that Habitat officials believed had been built with American-made drywall actually contain a Chinese product instead.
Calls to Jim Pate, the local group’s executive director, have been directed to a spokeswoman for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, who did not return phone calls for this story. Like all Habitat affiliates, the New Orleans branch oversees Habitat homebuilding in its local area, handling construction and fundraising and selecting the families who receive the homes.
Riccardo Crespo, a guitarist who lives in Musician’s Village, said he worked on his house for six months before moving in. He discovered that he had Chinese drywall after being contacted by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Habitat officials promised Crespo that they would come up with a solution, and that he’d be contacted Habitat’s attorneys by the end of last week. As of Wednesday, Crespo still hadn’t heard from them.
Crespo wants Habitat to replace his drywall and provide safe housing for him until his house is fixed.
“I cannot afford to move out,” said Crespo, who says his eyes have been irritated and metal objects in his house are corroding. “They have to give me another place to live.”
The idea for creating Musicians’ Village came from jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., who wanted to bring musicians back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Tax filings for the Village show that Marsalis and Connick Jr. are on the board, and that their manager, Ann Marie Wilkins, is the board’s chairwoman. The musicians’ current focus in the development appears to be on a music center that is being built in the middle of the neighborhood.
A spokesperson for Wilkins’ management agency said the three board members are traveling outside the country and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Update: Update: Branford Marsalis sent this statement to ProPublica through a spokesperson:
I became involved with Habitat for Humanity because I believe in their work and their mission. And as I am not personally involved with details related to the construction, it would be pure speculation for me to comment on this issue. What I CAN tell you is that I am confident that they will work with the homeowners and make sure that any of the affected homes are properly fixed.