Study finds prefab houses beyond repair in villages

1970s-era structures are rotting, moldy and potentially unsafe

Posted: Monday, October 05, 2009

ANCHORAGE - 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 the 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.

It's unclear how many villages have problems as severe as Quinhagak, where federally funded homes were shipped in prebuilt halves more than 30 years ago. The Association of Village Council Presidents Housing Authority 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.

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.

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