Editor's note: This story was updated on Monday morning to correct grammatical errors.
Katie Patt and her husband moved in to 1741 Moss St., a faded robin’s egg-blue bungalow that is part of the University of Oregon’s East Campus Housing, in June 2016. The mother of three young boys, Patt said that after a month of living in the home, mold started to grow on the walls.
“There was this black, hairy mold that just started growing two feet up the wall and it was a foot wide,” Patt said. “On the direct opposite side was our bedroom closet. We would try to clean it, and it wouldn’t even wipe off.”
Patt said the problem wasn’t just an eye sore.
“All of us were very sick. We had a lot of behavioral challenges with our older sons. We couldn’t figure out if it was their age, but it was more extreme [in that home],” Patt said. “My boss would ask me when we were not sick.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a 2004 study from the Institute of Medicine found that those who are otherwise healthy and live in environments with mold can develop upper respiratory problems.
That’s why, in rainy Eugene, Patt’s complaints about the living conditions aren’t unique among East Campus Housing residents. Two lawsuits have been filed against the university in the past two years over the conditions of homes in East Campus Housing. One lawsuit was filed over the lead paint that coats the outside of many of the residences. The Meng family, who lived in 1709 Moss St., sued the university in July 2018, claiming that black mold inside their home caused them to fall ill. The Meng’s case has not yet been settled.
“UO is recruiting families and telling them it’s nice for families,” said Emily Meng, one of the tenants of 1709 Moss St.
East Campus Housing leases put the responsibility of taking care of mold on the tenant. But in extreme cases, or when mold is due to a structural fault, taking care of the mold is the university’s responsibility. In cases with a lot of moisture and areas of the house where mold is widespread, it’s complicated to determine who is responsible.
Following the initial story about the Meng family’s lawsuit, the Emerald launched a larger, follow-up investigation to determine if other East Campus Housing tenants experienced similar problems. This follow-up consisted of interviews with prior tenants and information gained from public records, such as annual housing inspections. The Emerald’s investigation found that mold is a common occurrence in East Campus Housing, and tenants say that maintenance requests are often deferred and sometimes go ignored.
The Emerald tried multiple times to interview officials involved with UO Housing, including Director of Housing Facilities and Services Greg Ottoman, but all inquiries were redirected to Kelly McIver, the safety and risk services spokesman. McIver provided answers to the Emerald’s questions via email after consulting with staff in University Housing and Environmental Health and Safety.
Mold, mildew and maintenance
UO’s east campus area is a contrast of old and new buildings — two modern, brick dorms, Global Scholars Hall and Kalapuya Ilihi, stand across the street from the Bean residence hall, which was built in 1963 and is in the middle of renovations. The east campus properties span from 14th Avenue and Villard Street to 18th Avenue and Columbia Street and are mostly decades-old, one-story homes.
The university leases single and multiple-bedroom residences to graduate students, including those with families. The university owns the homes, which on the surface appear to be ideal living spaces for graduate students with children because they have multiple rooms for kids and outdoor space.
“In many ways, it was a great deal. We had a full house,” said Eoin Bastable, a graduate student who lived at 1584 Villard St. for four years.
[View the Emerald's interactive map here]
The houses that would become East Campus Housing were built in the early to mid-1900s, and Lane County property records show that the oldest house was built in 1901. According to documents from UO’s Public Records Office, the university acquired its first east campus residence in 1961 and made its last purchase in 1994. Around the time UO purchased its last east campus house, it built the Agate Street apartments, which offer more affordable housing options to students.
Although there are dozens of properties, there is a waitlist to move into east campus homes. UO says that tenant turnover “tends to be low and infrequent,” and prospective renters can wait from 12 to 18 months for a home to open up; however, the university says that this timeframe isn’t always accurate due to factors such as availability and the number of students leaving at the time.
At one time, East Campus Housing wasn’t the only university-owned housing for students with families. The university owned Westmoreland Housing — a 37-building apartment complex with 404 rooms that was built in the early 1960s.
The university sold the property in 2006. At the time of the sale, according to the UO Libraries, 234 units had tenants and 30 percent of those included tenants with children.
Nick Ponvert, a graduate student in the neuroscience institute, said that he and his wife were on the east campus waitlist before they moved into a house on 18th Avenue and Villard Street.
Ponvert said the rent is affordable, but he’s had some problems in the house — there was a leak in his bedroom, and he also had to alert UO about clogged gutters because he lives near large maple trees.
“I’m the kind of guy who would do it myself, but they’ve been pretty adamant about me not doing it,” he said. “They’ve been pretty responsive; water leaking into your house is an emergency request.”
Ponvert said that he and his wife would wake up in the morning and the water would condense on the windows. Then a black, splotchy mold grew on the walls and a fuzzy gray mold grew on his bookcase. He said his wife developed asthma when they moved to Eugene, and the conditions inside the house didn’t help the allergies she already had.
“My wife has pretty bad asthma and we attributed that somewhat to the mold that we were fighting. She since has gotten tested for allergens and mold isn’t as bad as an issue as much as the cats are,” Ponvert said.
Ponvert rented a dehumidifier from the university, which he said improved conditions — but not entirely.
“It takes some maintenance every so often; we still have to scrub some of the mold off the wall,” Ponvert said. “It’s not anywhere as bad as it has been in the past. If you can keep the humidity down with the humidifier around 50 percent, it really helps.”
Staying away from the mold
Mold is a common problem among homes in the Pacific Northwest, given the rainy winters. McIver said that surface-level mold is commonly observed in older homes and no more than two square feet may be found in as much as 25 percent of annual inspections, and that the mold “does not usually indicate a structural fault or failure of the building envelope.”
While Ponvert and his wife were able to find a partial solution to the mold, the Patt family wasn’t as lucky. Patt became pregnant while living in the home and said she complained to University Housing about its conditions.
Patt said the mold eventually spread to her closet, which the university sealed off. Then they had to remove the home’s chimney because it was letting moisture into the house and creating an ideal environment for mold growth.
“We were just sick a lot — more than usual headaches and bloody noses,” Patt said.
In May 2017, Patt sent an email to Francis Pastorelle, the UO housing area coordinator, saying although one room improved after the removal of the chimney, certain rooms still had mold.
“The small room upstairs is still covered in mold, and right above our 1-year-old’s bed in the little room downstairs is brown staining from moisture, but now it is cracking and not looking so good,” Patt wrote. “We did show it to the men twice and they said it was probably moisture, but it is getting worse.”
Patt said the mold eventually got so bad that she moved her family into the two downstairs bedrooms and tried to block off the mold with blankets. Patt’s youngest son has asthma, and she believes the mold inside the home exacerbated his conditions and the family had to call 911 when he stopped breathing.
“My youngest is on preventive asthma medication, and I’m 100 percent sure he was affected healthwise by the mold,” she says. “The mold was a nightmare upstairs.”
According to the lease, which also contains an asbestos disclosure, controlling mold growth is the responsibility of the tenant. The language in the lease requires residents to minimize mold growth by keeping room temperatures above 60 degrees, keeping humidity at less than 60 percent, ensuring that furniture is away from the walls and making sure that bathrooms and kitchens are “dry and clear of moisture.”
The Emerald requested housing inspection records from the last three years of all of the university’s East Campus Housing properties. The records show the presence of mold in many of the homes, including in the Meng’s. In total, 74 properties make up East Campus Housing and the inspection records found mold in 40 of those properties over the last three years. This analysis included the Agate Street apartments, which the Emerald counted as one building, although university inspectors found mold in multiple units.
Despite the provisions in the lease, UOPD’s McIver said that there are some cases in which mold is the responsibility of the university, and not the tenant. These cases include instances in which there is more than approximately 10 square feet of mold growth, concerns that mold growth may lead to permanent damage of the home or if there is water damage that is causing the mold growth.
The answers McIver provided say that the mold in Patt’s residence crossed the 10-square-foot threshold, and, as a result, the family was moved to another home while the university dealt with the mold issue.
The university performed air sampling tests on the home, but Patt said she did not receive the results. She said she sent several emails to UO requesting the test results and eventually had to file a public records request in September 2018 to receive them.
“I complained at least three times, and I requested three times to see the results of the testing,” Patt said. “I did get a response. They were very honest with us. He [Greg Ottoman] was concerned that I was pregnant in the home.”
The Emerald also requested the test results. The university did two separate rounds of testing on the Patts’ house, one in January 2018 and another in May. Both results show the presence of aspergillus/penicillium and cladosporium, molds the CDC lists as “common indoor molds.”
According to the CDC, determining a dangerous level of mold is difficult from an outsider's interpretation of the results due to the unique circumstances and situations within each home. The agency says that test results cannot be interpreted without “physical inspection of the contaminated area or without considering the building’s characteristics and the factors that led to the present condition.”
But in the Patts’ case, the mold was bad enough that the university told them to move. Patt said that Housing Director Greg Ottoman told her family that they needed to leave the house.
Despite the moldy conditions and moving Patt’s family, the university insists that the homes are safe. The responses McIver provided say that after cleaning Patt’s home, University Housing determined that the home’s structure was not affected and a second round of testing showed lower spore concentrations. McIver said that the university will monitor conditions of the home annually.
McIver wrote in an email response that the East Campus Housing facilities “are in better-than-average condition and are maintained better than most rental houses of similar vintage in Eugene.” McIver’s response added that if “the houses are properly maintained and provisions in the lease agreements are followed, the houses are fully safe.”
Several of the East Campus homes are “offline,” a term the university uses to describe homes that require “maintenance or repair costs [that] would exceed their rental return value,” not because the homes are uninhabitable. Offline homes include 1778 Villard St., which is surrounded by a metal chain-link fence. According to answers McIver provided, eight homes fit the criteria the university provided.
For some tenants, containing the mold growth was a constant battle. Jen Steimer and her husband lived in 1510 Villard St., just a block from Global Scholars Hall, from February 2014 to August 2017.
“It seemed fine at first, and then, next fall, when it started raining, there was a lot of mold around the windows,” Steimer said. “We wiped it and it would come back. We could just smell it.”
Steimer said that when university employees came to inspect the house, they suggested turning up the heat, as the lease recommends.
“I had to miss a lot of work, and I felt really achy,” Steimer said. “My husband’s asthma was worsened, and he ended up in the emergency room.”
Steimer said the mold wasn’t the only problem they had while living in the home; she said that there were also issues with rats.
Another persistent issue plagued the home for three years, Steimer says — the smell of gas. In an email she sent to East Campus Housing in July 2017, Steimer says that she noticed the smell of gas for the past three summers.
“In addition, we are smelling gas each night on the south side of the house when the windows are open when we are going to bed, so we are breathing in gas all night while we sleep,” she wrote in the email. “Both of these issues combined with the mold issue are causing me to feel like I’m slowly being poisoned, and now that I am pregnant, this is causing me great stress, loss of sleep and constant worry.”
Steimer said that someone from the gas company came to fix the leak and they moved to 1737 Columbia St. in May 2017.
Living with lead paint
Mold isn’t the only East Campus Housing problem that has been brought up in the courts. In September 2016, a family filed a lawsuit against the university due to the lead paint that coated their house. The complaint in the lawsuit stated that the premises became “uninhabitable.” According to court documents, the family initially sought $70,000 and later settled in court for $120,000.
In 2016, UO commissioned G2 Consultants, a Lake Oswego, Oregon-based company, to conduct a lead paint survey on 29 homes in East Campus Housing. According to G2’s report, the work was “limited to paint films on interior building components previously identified by the university as being in poor condition.”
Along with G2’s report, the Emerald obtained other lead paint testing done by UO through a public records request. These tests are in the Emerald’s map of East Campus Housing.
G2 found lead paint in the Mengs’ and Bastables’ homes, and the report says the tests confirmed the presence of lead paint levels above the Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development’s threshold of 1.0 mg/cm2. The report acknowledges the danger of lead, and says that lead based paint is “a common cause of lead poisoning in children and represents a threat to the health and welfare of the occupants.”
Bastable said he had three children at the time the report came out, and one of his children was a newborn.
“We moved into that house with a newborn, and our main concern was having a child between 0-2 [years old] growing up in that house.”
The report lists the lead levels on Bastable’s bathroom door at 27.1 mg/cm2 and the laundry room door at 2.1 mg/cm2. The outside of Bastable’s home had elevated lead levels as well, with the front door’s exterior porch column and porch trim clocking in at 11.40 and 9.60 mg/cm2, respectively. The report described the exterior features in “fair condition,” meaning less than or equal to 10 percent of the exterior components were damaged.
Bastable said that the university did address the lead paint in his home after the report came out, but the exterior repairs didn’t impress him.
“It was a bit on the cheap side,” he said. “Instead of stripping the paint off and clearing it off, they put plywood planks on top of it. In the interior, they did replace the two doors.”
Bastable added that UO supports the community in other ways, but what matters to him is a focus on people’s well-being.
“The UO has invested in social activities; they have barbeques and stuff,” he said, “but what’s important to us is living in a safe home that’s well taken care of. If that’s the case, then they shouldn’t rent these places out anymore. They’re putting themselves at risk, but more importantly they’re putting families at risk by not keeping them up to current codes and standards.”
The university says that it has not confirmed long-term plans for the land on which East Campus Housing sits; however, a PowerPoint presentation shown to the university’s board of trustees in May 2018 indicated that the university has the beginning plans of future development.
The presentation, titled “East Campus Residential Expansion,” features a 500-bed project that would replace east campus homes and lots with four buildings that would include a variety of different units. The university anticipated that the project would cost around $60 million.
No new details about the project are publicly available on the university’s purchasing and contracting services website, despite the presentation saying that the request for proposal and negotiation stage of the project would take place from June to November 2018.
As for the East Campus Housing residents, life continues.