Pre-fab village houses on their last legs

Structures weren't built with cold climates in mind

October 3, 2009 

As many as one-third of homes in one Western Alaska village are rotting, moldy and potentially unsafe to live in, a new report says.

"We started to wonder how these buildings were still standing," said John O. Mark, housing director for the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak, which requested the study of 55 ranch-style homes.

The 1970s-era houses have no eaves or gutters, so rain runs down the walls and has soaked the wooden skeleton inside, according to report, by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. Entryways threaten to collapse, and an effort to insulate the houses instead trapped water in the swollen walls.

"Widespread use of these homes has created a problem of crisis proportions for the village: they are for all practical purposes unsalvageable," the report says. "Yet to condemn them all would leave roughly one-third of the village without shelter."

An engineering firm declared the homes "unfit for human occupancy" and said they were most likely beyond repair, according to the analysis.

Quinhagak is a community of 660 people a mile from the Bering Sea coast, near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The analysis follows a statewide housing survey, also released this fall, that found the highest percentage of deteriorated, unsalvageable homes in Alaska can be found in the most remote, isolated communities.

Nearly 1,700 village housing units are "falling apart," according to the survey. That's 7.2 percent of all remote rural housing. In comparison, just 0.5 percent of homes in Anchorage are considered beyond repair, according to the analysis prepared for the research center and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

The two reports highlight a costly problem facing rural Alaska and state decision-makers: All those old village homes built decades ago with little thought for Alaska's punishing weather are now falling apart.

"After awhile, what works in Tulsa is not going to work in an arctic or sub-arctic climate like Alaska, especially if you put it next to the Bering Sea," said Lee Jones, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman in Seattle.

'THE WOOD TURNS TO POWDER'

It's unclear how many villages have problems as severe as Quinhagak, where federally funded homes were shipped in pre-built halves more than 30 years ago. The Association of Village Council Presidents Housing Authority -- which oversees housing across the Y-K Delta -- installed the homes, Mark said.

David Fitka, who lives in the Yukon River village of Marshall, said he lives in a house built in Idaho for the housing authority in 1978.

"From the beginning, you could see that the building was made from low-grade products. Mold and mildew are a major problem, and my wife was recently diagnosed with asthma as a result," he wrote in an e-mail.

That era of homes weren't designed with Alaska in mind, said Bob Brean, director of research and rural development for the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

"If you've got that '75, '76 (housing) stock, you can assume that the same situation exists with those homes. Mekoryuk. Napaskiak. Napakiak. I mean, go right up the coast," Brean said. "My point is, you could multiply the Quinhagak scenario by at least 20 if you looked statewide."

In Bethel, 70 miles to the northeast of Quinhagak, the city banned firefighters from staying overnight in the fire hall this summer because of widespread water damage. The station was built in the early 1980s, and wood rot is a common problem in the hub city for buildings constructed around the same time, Mayor Joe Klejka said at the time.

"The wood turns to powder," he said.

HELP IS IN THE WORKS

Deputy Housing Secretary Ron Sims heard highlights of the Quinhagak findings during a meeting on Alaska housing in Anchorage on Thursday. The Department is reviewing the village's recent request for an "imminent threat grant," which could help pay for planning but wouldn't cover the overall cost of replacing the rotting homes, Jones said.

On Sept. 24, Sen. Mark Begich wrote U.S. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovon -- who visited Western Alaska along with other Obama officials in August -- asking the feds to send emergency money to the village.

The cold climate research center, a private nonprofit based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, plans to build a low-cost, energy efficient prototype home in the village as early as next year in hopes of pioneering more affordable housing in the region.

The center recently finished a similar project in Anaktuvuk Pass by designing a home with soy-foam insulation and solar panels that cost 75 percent less than current home construction in the Brooks Range village, Begich said.

UPGRADES MADE IT WORSE

Homeowners in Quinhagak saw the mold and the swelling and the sagging girders, and knew something bad was happening behind the walls, Mark said.

"The base of the walls will start to form frost ... and I'm assuming that's because the insulation and inside sidings are just saturated with water and they freeze," said the village housing director, who owns one of the homes.

Then this fall workers training to rehabilitate one of the old HUD houses cut a hole in the wall and looked inside, he said. "The wood itself -- it was so bad, badly deteriorated and rotted, that you could just scrape it off with your hands."

At the village's request, a team of two cold climate research center officials and an engineer inspected a sample of 10 homes meant to represent the best and worst of the houses.

They found the beams supporting the houses saturated with water, said Aaron Cooke, an architectural designer for the center. "The walls were made so that they were unable to dry at all. So they have just rampant mold."

He said that upgrading the homes in the mid-1990s made the problem worse by creating a kind of double vapor barrier that traps water in the walls.

Most of the houses are now owned by residents, though about five still belong to the regional housing authority, Mark said.

AVCP Housing head Ronald Hoffman couldn't be reached for comment Friday. Vice President Mark Charlie said only that the housing authority is aware of the problem and plans to meet with Quinhagak leaders and others to come up with answers to the housing crisis.

For now, families living in the 55 homes are staying put, said Mark, the village housing director. "They have nowhere else to go."


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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