Millers River tenant had own way to humidify, and it cost $31,000 to clear the resulting mold

The Millers River public housing development has been getting energy-efficient renovations. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Newly renovated apartments at the Millers River public housing development are sealed up tight to save energy – maybe too tight, for tenants who aren’t used to it. The Cambridge Housing Authority spent $30,850 to remove extensive mold from one apartment where the recently returned resident boiled large pots of water on her stove to add moisture to the dry air, according to a report presented to CHA commissioners July 28. “The new energy-efficient apartment created the perfect storm,” executive director Michael Johnston told commissioners.

Johnston said “some tenant education will need to happen” informing residents that “they will need to have windows open to allow for air exchange.” Director of operations Kevin Braga said managers are developing an education program for employees as well as tenants.

But in an email, Johnston acknowledged that it would be difficult to expect tenants to open windows in winter, when “condensation is a bigger problem.” The tenant who boiled water had moved back to her modernized apartment in late summer or early fall and the mold developed “during the winter months,” he said.

Asked whether CHA is considering solutions other than telling tenants to open windows, such as distributing humidifiers, Johnston said: “At this time, we have not considered other options, but that could change if we find more issues now that we are back to yearly inspections.”

The housing authority made hundreds of its public housing units more energy-efficient when it rehabilitated them in an ambitious program to upgrade the entire portfolio to preserve scarce low-income housing units. Yet this problem hasn’t been reported before, including at Millers River, which is still under construction. The work is proceeding in stages, and relocated tenants can move back when their apartments are completed. Millers River houses elderly and disabled tenants.

Johnston said he didn’t know why excessive condensation hadn’t occurred in other renovated housing authority buildings. “My guess would be that the HVAC systems all vary to a certain degree in how they are designed and function, in particular how and where the make-up air comes from,” he said. Millers River apartments vent directly to the outside, he said.

Different problem at LBJ

The housing authority ran into different heating and cooling problems during a June heat wave, when tenants at the LBJ Apartments development sweltered through several days without air-conditioning. The authority said the apartments, which also serve elderly and disabled residents, is the only development in its portfolio that cannot provide central air conditioning without first turning off its heating system. Officials said a state law requiring landlords to offer heating until June 15 prevented CHA from turning on the air conditioning.

After television news programs featured the overheated tenants, the air conditioning came on. CHA said it would seek a change in the state law that would allow landlords to choose a heating cutoff date between May 15 and June 15.

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