NEW ORLEANS — For more than a year, the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity has insisted there were no defects in the Chinese drywall it used to build nearly 200 houses for victims of Hurricane Katrina, including many in its heavily publicized “Musicians’ Village’’ development in the Upper Ninth Ward.
But a house-by-house canvas of Musicians’ Village by reporters from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and ProPublica found several homeowners who reported serious problems and one who said she had complained to Habitat for more than a year about corrosion and electronics failures believed to be related to her drywall.
The reporters’ interviews with dozens of residents also turned up a second potentially significant problem: Some of the homes that Habitat officials believed had been built with American-made drywall actually contain a Chinese product instead.
As a result, Habitat has begun investigating as many as 50 post-Katrina homes that used the allegedly American-made product. Most of the targeted homes are in Musicians’ Village, which was largely bankrolled by Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis in an attempt to bring musicians back to the city after the hurricane. But some are in other New Orleans neighborhoods.
A Habitat spokeswoman said the investigation has already confirmed that five houses have Chinese drywall and are exhibiting problems associated with the product, such as corroded electrical wiring.
The New Orleans chapter of the prominent non-profit continued using Chinese drywall in the Village and its other New Orleans projects throughout 2009 -- long after other builders stopped -- because it said it had done tests showing that the stockpile of Chinese product it bought from Taishan Gypsum Co. in March 2007 was not problematic.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission or CPSC has received more than 3,300 complaints from 37 states about contaminated drywall. The agency has found that several brands of Chinese drywall, including several varieties of Taishan, emit large amounts of sulfur gasses that may trigger respiratory problems and cause refrigerators, air conditioners and other electronic products to fail.
According to the CPSC, the only way to fix a house with contaminated drywall is to remove both the wallboard and the electrical wiring and other components.
The New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity spokeswoman, Aleis Tusa, wouldn’t say whether the non-profit plans to make those repairs if it confirms that houses it built have tainted drywall.
Tusa also indicated that Habitat officials have no plan to systematically inspect the 200 houses it built with the Chinese drywall, which Habitat officials still insist is not defective. She said the focus now is on determining how many of the 50 homes Habitat built with what it thought was American board actually contain corrosive Chinese board.
“If one of those (other) homeowners calls us, we’ll certainly go take a look,” she said. “But right now we’re focused on the 50. We need to determine what our exposure is on this.”
Jim Pate, executive director for the New Orleans branch of Habitat, was not made available for an interview. But in December he told the Herald-Tribune that "not all Chinese drywall is bad."
"Thankfully, ours is not an issue,” he said at the time. “We're confident in that or we wouldn't have kept building with it. We're not going to let our families live in a problem home."
Three homeowners in Musicians’ Village told reporters of a range of problems, from failed appliances and electronics to corroded metals and jewelry. They also complained about health issues, including irritated eyes and respiratory problems.
One Musicians’ Village homeowner said that since mid-2009 she has repeatedly complained to Habitat about appliance failures and strange corrosion in her home. She said Habitat officials kept promising to send an inspector, but never did. Other owners said they raised questions but were promised they had nothing to worry about.
When a reporter visited homes that Habitat originally said were made with American drywall, he found that at least three had wallboard that was clearly stamped “Made in China.” Each of those homes also had corrosion and other problems associated with contaminated drywall.
Habitat said it bought what it thought was American-made drywall from Interior Exterior Building Supply, known as INEX. INEX became widely known last year as one of the main players in Louisiana who supplied problematic Chinese-made board, with the majority coming from Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd.
Although no manufacturer’s name was present on the drywall in the Musicians’ Village homes visited by the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica, it was stamped MADE IN CHINA, MEETS OR EXCEEDS ASTM C1396-04 STANDARD. That exact phrase, in capital letters, has been identified in federal court records as being one of the ways Taishan Gypsum Co. marked its board
Village of Dreams
Riccardo Crespo, a guitar player who moved into Musician’s Village in February 2007, thought he had found “a dream” after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina: a chance to live in a new home among fellow musicians.
From the day he moved in his eyes were dry and itchy, but he didn’t begin worrying about the irritation until early 2009, when he and his neighbors heard about the Chinese drywall problem. Crespo said he called Habitat and asked whether the drywall in his home came from China.
In March 2009, Habitat sent him a letter telling him not to worry. It said some of the board may have been “imported,” but “in an abundance of caution” it had been tested and “there is no danger to homeowners.”
“We want you to hear from us first, that you have nothing to be concerned about,” said the final line in the letter.
But the testing method used by the company Habitat hired has since been discredited. Instead of testing a sample of the drywall, as is commonly done, the company tested the air in a warehouse where the drywall was stored and the air in a volunteer center where the drywall was installed.
Crespo said he trusted Habitat — they “are like our parents” — and believed he had dodged a bullet.
But over the next year he noticed that some sort of black substance was pitting the door handles and metal fixtures in his house. His eye problem persisted. And a silver necklace with a guitar medallion – a keepsake from his days in Brazil -- began corroding. Every time he cleaned the necklace it kept turning black.
“I’ve had this on my neck for 17 years and it never had a problem before,” said Crespo, who plays about 125 gigs a year in New Orleans and other locales. “It’s supposed to be silver. Now look at it.”
When the Herald-Tribune and ProPublica contacted Crespo last month, he decided it was time to call Habitat again. Then he registered his concerns in person at a Habitat office.
About a week later, several Habitat employees showed up at his house. He said at first they tried to convince him that it didn’t contain Chinese drywall. But when they opened the air-conditioning utility closet in his hallway, Crespo said there was an audible gasp.
“It said right there, on the back of the drywall, ‘Made in China,’” Crespo said. “After that, things changed.”
When one of the inspectors opened an electrical outlet to check the copper ground wire, they saw that it was black. The Habitat workers then cut out rectangular drywall samples, so they could be tested in a lab.
Last week Crespo got the results.
“I’ve got the bad stuff, unfortunately,” he said, pointing to a copy of the testing report as he sat in his living room, which smelled faintly of chemicals. “The question is what happens now. We all came from such trauma after Katrina. This was my dream, to be in this house. Now the dream is over. I just want them to make things right.”
According to the testing report, by California-based Columbia Analytical Services, not only is Crespo’s drywall releasing hydrogen sulfide, but it also contains more than 10 times the amount of elemental sulfur considered to be indicative of problematic board.
The lab also performed a corrosion test, placing Crespo’s drywall sample in a sealed jar with a clean piece of copper. After several weeks, the copper started to blacken.
“I don’t want to live in this house anymore,” Crespo said. “I want to move on -- either get me out of here and fix it, or just move me to another house. But I don’t want to stay here every day and then 10 years from now find out I’ve got a health problem or worse.”
Belinda Harrison, a bus driver who helped evacuate vulnerable New Orleans residents before Katrina, lives down the street from Crespo. She found herself homeless after the storm destroyed her house and saw her new Habitat house as the beginning of a new life.
But she, too, has seen evidence of contaminated drywall in her home. About a year after she and her son, a drummer, moved in some of her appliances began failing. Her computer has died twice.
She received the same March 2009 letter from Habitat that Crespo received. She said Habitat also told her that it used only American drywall in her home. But last month, after Crespo urged her to look in her air-conditioning closet, she found the same “Made in China” markings he had found.
Harrison said Habitat officials have since visited her home and found wires with signs of corrosion. They also took a drywall sample from a bedroom for testing; the results should be back in a couple of weeks.
She said they didn’t take a sample from inside the air-conditioner closet. That could be problematic if the home was built with a mix of Chinese and domestic brands.
“I did mention that to them when they were here,” Harrison said. “I figure I’ll see what the results are first.”
Harrison said she doesn’t want to cause any trouble for Habitat – she just wants her situation resolved.
“All of us here, we’re all just trying to do what it takes to survive. You get up each day and you do your best,” she said.
Earlier this month, Crespo and Harrison met with Pate, the New Orleans Habitat’s executive director. They said Pate promised to come up with a solution, saying they were “like a family.”
Crespo said Pate also told him that Habitat’s attorneys were getting involved, and that they would contact him the following week to tell him how they were going to proceed. As of Friday night, he was still waiting.
Habitat Kept Building
New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity appears to be unique in the Chinese drywall saga, because it continued using the Chinese product even after the problem gained wide public attention in early 2009. Most, if not all, other U.S. homebuilders stopped using Chinese-manufactured wallboard at about that time.
Even after media reports and government probes linked two Chinese manufacturers to the problem — Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd. and Taishan Gypsum Co. — Habitat continued to use its Chinese board. In 2009 it built several dozen homes using Taishan board it had purchased two years earlier, even though Habitat homeowners interviewed by ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune said they were already complaining to the organization about corrosion problems, health issues and failing electric appliances.
The organization didn’t stop building with Chinese drywall until November 2009, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission sent Habitat a letter directing it not to use or transport its remaining Taishan board unless it notified the CPSC first.
By that time, Habitat had built close to 200 homes in the New Orleans area using the Taishan board. It also had distributed the material to other nonprofits, churches and individuals who built another 400 homes with it.
Habitat continues to assert that its Taishan stockpile — 120,000 sheets bought in March 2007 for about $1 million from a Florida company called Fly System —was safe. But that assertion, repeated in letters to homeowners in 2009, is based on the type of tests that government and private experts now say can’t be trusted.
In February, after the Herald-Tribune reported that those tests were inadequate, Habitat sent a single piece of Taishan drywall from its warehouse to be tested. The test showed that the sample did not produce a detectable level of hydrogen sulfide gas.
On April 8, U.S. District Court Judge Eldon E. Fallon handed down a $2.6 million ruling against Taishan, also known as Taian Taishan Plasterboard and Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co. Ltd., for contaminated drywall used in seven Virginia homes. Hundreds of other cases against the company are still pending in Fallon’s court, where federal drywall litigation has been consolidated. Taishan is appealing Fallon’s decision.
This week Habitat reiterated its assertion that until last month, none of Habitat’s homeowners had complained about drywall-related problems.
But Sandy Ricard, a Musicians’ Village homeowner who lives a few houses down from Crespo and Harrison, told ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she has been calling Habitat for months about problems she suspects are related to contaminated drywall. She said Habitat kept promising to investigate, but no one showed up.
Ricard has had a string of appliance and electronics failures. The smoke detectors in her home have gone off so often that her husband finally removed the batteries in all but one.
She also said her family has been struggling with burning, watery eyes, and her daughter has respiratory problems and a stuffy nose that won’t go away.
Ricard said Habitat employees finally inspected her home last month, after she told the organization that she had been in touch with ProPublica and the Herald-Tribune.
She said they listened to her story, took pictures and opened up some outlets. But what they told her next confounded her.
“They said there weren’t enough signs that I’ve got a problem to do testing,” Ricard said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I mean I’m here in the middle of the block, with Chinese drywall houses on both sides of me being tested, and all these things breaking down, and they’re saying they don’t see a reason to test.”
Ricard said a Habitat employee told her that the copper wires in an outlet they examined were “not black enough” to be indicative of contaminated drywall.
When she continued to press Habitat to test her house, she said she was told it would cost too much.
Tusa, the Habitat spokeswoman, said she had no knowledge of Ricard’s previous complaints and disputed that Habitat told Ricard that it would not test her home. Asked whether Ricard’s home was among the five homes whose drywall had been sent for testing, however, Tusa said it was not.
“We’re still gathering information from all of our homeowners; we haven’t made any final decisions on whether to test or not to test,” Tusa said.
Habitat is planning to fly a scientist from Columbia Analytical Services to New Orleans to advise the organization on how it should proceed with inspections and testing.
Tusa said the testing service will look at homes that were built with Habitat’s Taishan stockpile, as well as those built with its stockpile of INEX-supplied drywall that Habitat once thought contained only U.S. brands.
Meanwhile, Ricard is keeping tabs on her neighbors’ test results and inspections. “They want to deal with us separately, but we’re in this together right now,” she said.