Moldy Metropolis: Homeowners Struggle with Leaky Concrete | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Moldy Metropolis: Homeowners Struggle with Leaky Concrete

During Chicago's go-go real estate market of a few years ago, condo buildings mushroomed…it seemed overnight. And “mushroomed” may be a good word, considering how many of those buildings are now plagued with mold and water leakage. The culprit is a construction material that officials have long known can cause problems if it's not installed right. Homeowners from Bronzeville to Wicker Park and elsewhere in the city are facing tens of thousands of dollars to repair brand-new construction. They're on the hook, even when city inspectors have signed off on their homes.

Juanita Owens is giving a tour of the condo at 43rd and South Vincennes where she thought she'd retire in style. It hasn't turned out that way.

OWENS: Uh, come on.
GROSS: What are all these towels here?
OWENS: That's to get the water, I'm not home. The water comes in as you can see, then I don't want the floors to buckle, that's more damage.

A stream of water flows through Owens's ceiling with every big storm, leaving chunks of paint peeling off. Black mold creeps up her window frames. Owens and her neighbors moved into their new three unit condo building in 2004. Pretty soon, it started leaking. They hired private inspectors who found lots of problems with the exterior walls… made of concrete block. Owens's neighbor Mechele Elias says the developer kept promising to seal the concrete to stop the leaking.

ELIAS: He would say well, oh you know, the building needs to be sealed, I'll send my masonry out, and that's the last reply I actually got from him before he disappeared. 

ambi: Walking on gravel

Mechele Elias had never heard of split-face concrete block. Private home inspector Steve Hier is all too familiar with it.

HIER: And here we have an even bigger crack. 

I asked Hier to come look at Elias's concrete-block walls. He traces a crack that zigzags through the mortar. Hier says he sees buildings like this several times a week.

HIER: See these little waterfalls. And here's literally a hole in a mortar joint that was never tooled properly...

Split-face concrete block has a rough surface reminiscent of traditional Chicago graystone. Thousands of these buildings popped up all over Chicago in the past 15 years. Picture all those shiny condos in places like Bucktown and Lakeview…on the front is brick, but the sides are gray concrete blocks. Concrete block is a lot cheaper than regular brick - less than half the cost. The problem is - it leaks, if it's not installed with proper water repellents and drainage features. Hier says the city could catch faulty masonry…if it took inspections seriously.

HIER: When I get involved in lawsuits as an expert witness, I will look at the blueprints, and the architect drew it up properly. The city stamped off on the prints as being fine, but the person doing the work, didn't do it. Who's watching something that I think is totally critical for people like Mechele?

Mechele Elias's condo wouldn't even be concrete block if Alderman Vi Daley had had her way back in 2001. Daley kept getting complaints from residents of her north side ward. She wanted to ban concrete block from the whole city. But she backed off after masonry groups lobbied in defense of it. Instead, she co-sponsored an ordinance spelling out how the block should be installed. It requires features like flashing- those metal or rubber strips that divert water out of the wall - and weep holes that also allow water to drain out. It also requires water repellents and sealants.
DALEY: As they're building, the intention really was to make sure someone from the building department went out there to make sure they were installing it properly.

But the ordinance may not be delivering what Daley intended. The city doesn't even have a masonry inspector. That job was eliminated at the beginning of this year. Now Chicago's 14 new construction inspectors are supposed to inspect masonry. Buildings department spokesman Bill McCaffrey says they're carpenters by trade. But he says they're qualified to make sure the masonry follows the building plan. He says they look to see whether flashing and weep holes have been put in and can ask for invoices to prove the block contains water repellent. But as for actually checking that the concrete block is sealed, McCaffrey says there are two tests they could do. One is a water penetration test.

MCCAFFREY: We do not do that test.
GROSS: And what's the other test?
MCCAFFREY: Chipping off a piece of block and sending to a lab to be analyzed.
GROSS: And do you guys do that?
MCCAFFREY: No. That test is very expensive.
GROSS: So that portion of this ordinance is an honor system? MCCAFFREY: It's not that it's an honor system. It's that people know they have to comply with the code. And their license is at risk, their livelihood is at risk. So they know they need to comply otherwise they face penalties. GROSS: Right, but that sounds like an honor system because how are you guys going to prove they didn't comply with it, if you don't do any tests? MCCAFFREY: Well, we would have to do some of these additional tests, but we would do that based on complaints we would have received.

But here's the catch 22. Say the homeowner calls the city to complain about leaky concrete block - like maybe it wasn't sealed. The city sends out an inspector and finds a code violation. Then guess who's on the hook for the violation? The homeowner. So there's not much incentive to report leaky construction to the city. With more than 10,000 new homes and condo buildings built in Chicago this decade… that could mean a lot of mold and structural problems going unreported.

McCaffrey says he doesn't have a record of violations of this ordinance. But masons I talked with say the problems are widespread. One of them… Mike Galasinski of Arrow Masonry …estimates that 80 percent of new construction in the recent boom used split-face block. He says of that, 90 percent leaks.

GALASINSKI: If my father and my grandfather who were also masons saw this work, they'd roll over in their graves. That's all I can say. It's a shame.   

Suj Sundararaj didn't know he was buying himself a nightmare when he spent almost one million dollars on a brand new home in the West Town neighborhood.

SUNDARARAJ: You smell that? GROSS: It's really musty.
SUNDARARAJ: It's very musty. It's a thick heavy smell. 

That smell is from black mold. Sundararaj, his wife and baby daughter were living here until it got so bad he had to move his family out. And it's no joke - the mold experts showed up in biohazard suits. Now he's sinking about 75 thousand dollars into getting rid of the mold and repairing the walls.

SUNDARARAJ: It's the principle of this house that was so bad, and that's what upsets me more than anything. Sundararaj is suing his developer, Yaroslav Kot. Kot says Sundararaj wanted him to fix the building last year when Kot says the weather was too wet to do the work. He also says he's built other concrete-block homes that leak and he would never use the material again. Many homeowners have a hard time suing because developers shield themselves from liability. They create corporations that they then dissolve as soon as the building's sold.

ambi: Rifling papers

ELIAS: It was 4239 Vincennes Partners LLC.

Mechele Elias and her neighbors had that problem. Their developer, Martin Holec, dissolved the corporation last year. Holec's number isn't listed, his email bounced back and his lawyer didn't return a phone call or email. Elias says her neighbor tried to find out from the buildings department if proper inspections had been done, and got an email back. It said, "I can arrange for an inspection, but the violation notice will be addressed to each of the condo owners and you will be held liable for coming into compliance."

ELIAS: The city of Chicago doesn't owe you anything. The laws are set for the city, the developers but there's nothing for the purchaser.

And that's a $25,000 lesson she and her neighbors are learning. They'll have to hire masons to grind out the cracks in their mortar, redo it and spray on a water repellent…all to fix their almost-new concrete block building.

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