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YOUNGSTOWN Source of health problems is still a mystery, CHOICE says



Published: Wed, September 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Air quality analysis will be done, but otherwise the landlord is stumped.

By ROGER G. SMITH

CITY HALL REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Ruby Wilkie is at her front door, gasping for air, almost hyperventilating.

She leads visitors into the musty-smelling basement of 549 Kenmore Ave., pointing out discolored spots on the concrete and white splotches on her rack of coats.

Then it's back upstairs, quickly. Wilkie, 52, sticks a recently prescribed inhaler into her mouth and squeezes down twice.

"I can't take too much more of this stress," she said after the medicine calmed her breathing.

Wilkie is sure that it's water in the basement of the South Side home, built three years ago, that's creating the mildew that brought on her asthma.

She has complained for almost two years about the dampness and odor it creates. Now that it's affecting her health, she's had enough.

Her landlord, CHOICE Homes, says the agency is doing all it can but can't find a problem to fix beyond airing out the basement.

That's not good enough for Wilkie.

Moved in in 1999: She and the 11-year-old granddaughter she is rearing moved into the three-bedroom, one-bath ranch home in November 1999. It's one of more than 100 the nonprofit agency CHOICE, or Community Housing Options Involving Cooperative Efforts, has built around the city in recent years.

Wilkie, who is disabled with a back injury and works as a seamstress when she can, rents the home with Section 8 federal assistance.

Within a few months moisture built up in the basement. The agency told her to open the two vents in the basement's glass block windows and air it out. She did that through 2000 and into this year, to no avail.

She has complained to CHOICE the whole time and a slew of agency and construction people have been into the home since. Nothing has been done, however, and the problem remains.

Recently, Wilkie started having trouble breathing. Last week her doctor told her she has developed asthma because of the basement and prescribed several medications. She has never had respiratory problems before. Her granddaughter, Cebra Hall, now takes a prescription for allergies, too.

The mildew odor won't come out of their winter coats, either, Wilkie said, pointing to notes from two dry cleaners that back her up.

Stumped: Phil Smith, CHOICE executive director, said he will have air in the house tested immediately. Beyond that, Smith is at a loss to explain what more can be done.

"That basement is clean. The floors are dry; the walls are dry," he said. "I just don't know what the problem is. I don't know what else I can do."

Newly built homes sweat and air must be kept circulating to clear the moisture, he said, though the agency hasn't provided any equipment for that.

Smith said that if Wilkie's health is in jeopardy, he would encourage her to move.

The agency is willing to end the lease and can provide her another CHOICE home with a ramp for the disabled. The house is across town, however. Relocation takes time, too, because of federal red tape, he said. Section 8 should help her find a non-CHOICE rental if she chooses, Smith said.

Wilkie hasn't asked about relocating to a hotel because she and her granddaughter don't want to move. She just wants the problem to be fixed.

"I want to be able to breathe. Is that asking too much, for my health?" she asked, breaking into tears and straining for air. "I just want to be treated fairly for a problem I did not create."

rgsmith@vindy.com




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