We need to tell you our story so that maybe this problem won’t happen to another innocent family like ours. In 1993, we applied to Habitat for Humanity of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania so we could achieve our dream of owning our own home and providing our children with a safe and healthy environment to live in. We were so excited to receive notification that we were accepted because we were struggling to save for a home.
Our three children Billy, Mathew and Cami had been all diagnosed with asthma and we found it difficult to save enough money to buy our own home during that time. In 1995, Habitat for Humanity told us that they had located a property in our neighborhood that would fit the needs of our family. The property was a two bedroom home that had been vacant and run down and needed plenty of work.
We loved the location of the home because of the close proximity to our children’s school. We questioned Habitat about the extent of work that needed to be done to the house, including the basement which had a dirt floor covered with stagnant water. We were assured that the house would be renovated, inspected, and tested before we moved in. We felt confident that everything would be fine after we discussed the problems with the project manager.
In April 1996, we started to work on the house with members of Habitat and numerous volunteers. We were excited to see all of the work that was accomplished in just one day. Shortly afterwards, we hit a roadblock. The city put a stop to the project because no one filed the necessary permits to do any work. Weeks went by and there was no progress. Finally we got the o.k. to start again but this time there were no volunteers and there was no plan on how the project was to proceed. We continued to work on the home many times with only one member of Habitat for Humanity around . We stopped keeping track of our Sweat Equity Hours after seven hundred hours. We felt like there would never be an end to the project. Finally, after 12 months of work Habitat convinced us to take occupancy even though the house was not finished.
I did not want to move in because I felt that Habitat would never finish the house properly or sign it over to us. The house still needed plenty of work, which included rain gutters, a window in the laundry room, the basement door wasn’t in place and a retaining wall needed to be built to divert rain water from entering the basement. After many promises from Habitat to finish the house we agreed to move in.
Shortly after we moved in, we started having problems with rain water flooding our basement. After many calls to Habitat from us and our physician they agreed to come over and look at the problem. They (Habitat) decided to install a sump pump in one corner of the basement to drain the water after it entered the house. We asked when the rain gutters would be in place and we were told that they decided not to install them because they would cause ice damage to the roof in the winter time, and they also said that they were illegal. We were also reminded that the cost of rehabbing our house was over budget and they were not sure when they would be able to purchase it.
After a few more rainstorms and many phone calls, Habitat agreed to have gutters installed only on one side of the house. When the gutter company installed the rain gutters they installed them on the wrong side of the house so Habitat had no choice but to pay to have the other half installed. With no surprise to us, most of the water stopped coming into the basement. We decided to build the retaining wall in front of the basement door ourselves and replace the basement door so no more rainwater would enter the basement. Finally, we no longer had trouble with water in the basement, but unfortunately we had to throw away many boxes with our belongings in the trash.
We continued to finish the projects left behind while dealing with what seemed to be a sudden increase in illnesses with our young children. In December 1996, while working on the house our oldest son Billy was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. The doctor told us he needed to be transported to a different hospital because he had a collapsed lung and was in danger of cardiac arrest. After many tests at Geisinger Hospital in Danville, PA, we were told that he had strep throat and a sinus and ear infections that triggered his lung to collapse which included a pneumothorax. After months of medication and rest, he seemed to recover. Shortly after moving into our home we noticed our children were always sick and at the doctors with one infection after another.
In 1998, our son Mathew needed to have his adenoids removed because he had continuous sinus and throat infections that were affecting his diabetes. After returning home he started to get sick again and was readmitted to the hospital because he slipped into Keto-Acidosis due to his illness and being an insulin dependent diabetic. He also took months to recover from the complications after the surgery. It seemed that we spent most of our time either at the doctors office or the pharmacy getting antibiotics for our children. Time went by and we figured that our family was having bad luck with our health and there was many families who had it worse so we should just deal with it as best as we could. We continued to enjoy the fact that we were in our own home but we could not understand why we never received a mortgage agreement from Habitat but continued to make our monthly payments.
After asking many times when we would be signing a mortgage agreement we were told that the lawyers for Habitat were getting around to it . We were told that their attorney works on a Pro-Bono level and that we would need to be patient. It later came to our knowledge that there were at least a half a dozen families waiting just as long as we were with still no mortgage agreement. In October 2001, after numerous illnesses and diagnoses, our children’s pediatrician suggested that we have our house tested for environmental allergies and irritants. We didn’t feel that it was necessary but he insisted because of the continuous need for antibiotics and various medical problems since moving into the house. He felt it was not normal and he thought something was causing all of this trouble. We contacted Habitat for the testing because we still didn’t own the home and felt it was their responsibility.
After much resistance they finally agreed to limited testing due to the expense of the tests that needed to be performed. In November 2001, Habitat hired Coccardi and Associates to do minimal testing in a few spots in the house . They HEPA vacuumed and cleaned suspected spots in the attic and basement with a Clorox based cleanser. When the results from the tests were shown to us in Feb. 2001, we were told that there were six different types of mold present and that the previous remediation process was sufficient in cleansing the affected areas. We accepted their explanation and believed what we were told. In April 2001, we read an article in the Sunday paper showing a family that had lost their home and health to exposure to toxic mold. We were shocked to see the names of the molds that were defined as toxic in this family’s home because two of these mold were found in our home.
Without further hesitation we immediately contacted Habitat for Humanity about what we had read and they agreed to have a second opinion by another environmental company. Shortly afterward, Habitat for Humanity hired a company called Tech Clean to take more samples and after a few weeks the results came back from the lab. A rep from Tech Clean explained that they found even higher levels of mold present in the house. They said that our family was probably hyper- sensitive to the molds from living in a mold environment and that they would remediate the house with a peroxide based solution that would seal in the mold rather than trying to remove it. They said they would warranty their work but could not guarantee our children’s health. Our physician did not agree and suggested that we should vacate the house immediately.
We left the house with only our children’s medicines and clothing. Habitat agreed that we should leave and they offered to provide us with a hotel room to live while they worked out the details of removing the home and putting up a modular home. They agreed with our physician that the home was not safe to live in and it would need to be destroyed and rebuilt. Living in that house was no longer an option. After three weeks in a motel room we received a call from the manager of the motel that Habitat would no longer pay for our room and that we needed to leave by Sunday. This only gave us two days to find a place to stay.
Now we found ourselves with no place to live. Habitat requested to meet with us and presented us with two options. (1) Move back into the house after Tech-Clean remediates the house, or (2) They would build a new house in a different neighborhood for us where they had block grant money in place to build more homes. Our physician didn’t agree with option one for obvious reasons and didn’t agree with option two because it is located in a commercial environment next to an active railway which would only add to their medical problems after living in a toxic mold environment. When we explained our doctors decision to them they said they had no other options for us and said to take it or leave it. We e-mailed a letter to the regional manager for Habitat for Humanity, Mr. Paul Hoffman explained the problems that we were experiencing but he only responded to us by saying he would see what he could do. He spoke to the president of Habitat for Humanity of Lackawanna County and he requested that she should meet with us so we could find a resolution to our problem. We met with Sister Mary Persico and found out that she had no idea of the extent of the damages from toxic mold and the expenses that were involved in repairing the property. When she heard the details of the work that needed to be done she agreed that remediation wasn’t an option because of the expense. She explained to us that the money that was already spent on the house was way over budget. We feel that we are being penalized for Habitat’s poor judgment.
In September 2002, the executive director for Habitat for Humanity, Mr. Ozzie Quinn, requested for me to meet him at the house because he needed yet another mold company (Datom Products) to take mold samples of the house so he could file a claim with the insurance company. We came to find out later by a representative from Traveler’s Insurance that Mr. Quinn was submitting claims in our name without our consent. The last we heard Traveler’s Insurance was investigating insurance fraud against Habitat for Humanity . Datom Inc. opened a large portion of our sons bedroom wall and found black mold traveling up along the wall and suspected that it may be stachybotrys – a extremely dangerous toxic mold.
Afterwards, our physician asked that we contact Habitat’s attorney, Mrs. Melanie Naro, to request a copy of the test results from Datom’s samples and she replied by saying, “They would not give any information about the testing because what was in that house was irrelevant to our children’s health since we no longer lived there.” I explained that our physician wanted them so that maybe there would be information that might help him in resolving some of our children’s medical problems. Ms. Naro still said refused. I called Datom Products and asked if we could pay to have the home tested since Habitat failed to allow our physician to see any results from the testing. We borrowed $3500.00 to finally find out what was in our home and after the test results came back we were shocked at what we were told. Not only was there stachybotrys in the wall, it was also found in the air which indicates extremely high levels of toxic mold. A few months later, we received a call from Habitat requesting the house to be winterized. We assured them that it was because we requested for the utility companies to turn of all of the services in the summer.
On January 28, 2003, we received a phone call from our neighbor telling us that a water pipe had burst and both of our basements were flooded. When Mr. Quinn found out about the water damage he accused both of us of forgetting to have the house winterized. We explained to him that we requested to have the water turned off months earlier and tried to show him the copy of our water bill stating that we requested to have the water service turned off but he continued to yell at us and walked away. We contacted the water company and they admitted that their technician failed to turn off the water and apologized for the error. The following day we received a call from Mr. Quinn requesting that we return the keys to the house that still had all of our belongings in it by 1:30 that day. We told him we would try our best because we were already on the way to the doctors office with our oldest son, Billy, because we was feeling ill. Mr. Quinn said if we didn’t show up they would have to break the locks to get in. We made it to the house at exactly 1:15 but Habitat’s project manager, Bill Musgrave had already broken in by busting the locks on the front door. When we asked him why he didn’t wait he said it didn’t matter the house didn’t belong to us anymore. Mr. Quinn ordered Mr. Muskgrave to padlock the doors and left us standing there with the keys in our hands. A few days later we received a registered letter from Mr. Quinn informing us we had two weeks to remove all of our belongings or they would dispose of them. When we explained to Mr. Quinn that T.J. Jimmie from Datom Products said our belongs were not safe to remove without proper steps being taken, Mr. Quinn said we had no choice but to comply to the letter or they would have to remove all of our belongings themselves and dispose of them as they saw fit. We were told by experts that the house and the belongings were contaminated and that no one should be in the house or to remove the belongings. True to his word, Mr. Quinn hired a moving and storage company, exposing innocent and insusceptible people to remove all of our furniture and all of other belongs.
We could not believe an organization such as Habitat for Humanity could let things get so out of control like this. We were devastated to see everything we worked so hard to achieve being thrown away and afraid that what may have been given away had exposed innocent people. Through this whole ordeal we had contacted numerous attorneys only to get the same response, they felt bad for us and that we did have a case but they would not be able to help us. Many would not even review our case once they found out it was Habitat for Humanity that was involved in this matter.
We have taken our children to see an allergist/immunologist in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he explained to us that some of the damages to our immune systems and medical conditions caused from living in the home will be permanent and we will never recover completely. Our oldest son Billy, has been diagnosed with an I.G.A. immunity deficiency and also suffers from neurological damage. He has suffered from gastro-intestinal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome and recurrent infections. Our son, Mathew, has dealt with numerous infections, gastro-intestinal reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and also suffers from diabetes. Our daughter, Cami, has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and an elevated A.N.A level which can lead to Rheumatoid Arthritis or even Lupus. Cami is also a diabetic. As you can see, we have had more than our share of medical problems since living in that house and we would never want to see anyone go through what our family has in the past few years.
To add insult to injury, Habitat for Humanity has since sold that house to a private buyer and now we are afraid that the new owner is not fully aware of all of the problems that have been found with the house. We just can’t imagine some other family suffering the way our family has. We honestly believe in the great work that Habitat for Humanity International has accomplished and still believe in its mission of providing decent, affordable house to hard working families. Somehow our family has fallen through the cracks and has suffered great consequences for other people’s mistakes. We hope that you receive this letter and read it with an open mind and believe what we have told you. We have documentation on all of the facts that we have stated in this letter. We have learned to deal with all of our financial losses and we are still struggling with all of our health problems but we hope that by writing to you today we can help prevent another family from suffering the way our family has . We would like to thank you for your time and understanding in this matter.
Sincerely, William and Shelley
NOTE: Since the Wassal family sent us this letter, we researched Habitat for Humanity and were shocked to discover this was not an isolated incident.