MOORHEAD – Over the last quarter century, donors and volunteers have helped Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity build more than 50 homes in Cass and Clay counties for families that might not otherwise be able to own one.
For the second time in just two years, the organization is in the process of foreclosing on one of those homes – a house one door down from the first Habitat foreclosure. And in both cases, the residents say they've had persistent mold problems in the houses.
The home at 3500 10th Ave. S. in Moorhead is scheduled to be sold at public auction by the Clay County Sheriff's Office on Feb. 2. Habitat foreclosed on the house just east of it, at 3504 10th Ave. S., in January 2014. It still sits vacant two years later.
The fact that they're next door to each other is a "weird coincidence," said Rob Rich, executive director of Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity.
"It's always our last resort to have to foreclose," he said. "We're looking at putting people into housing, not getting them out."
With Lake Agassiz Habitat acting as the lender, if there's no buyer on the date of sale, the home goes back to the organization, just as the first foreclosed home did.
However, the occupant says she doesn't plan to let it get that far.
Mold ongoing issue
Tracy Charbonneau, whose name is on the mortgage along with her husband, Gerald Charbonneau, from whom she's separated, said they intend to get caught up on payments before the auction sale.
They have good reason to try to make it happen. There are eight children, ranging in age from two to 17, living in the home with Charbonneau – four are theirs together, two from her husband's previous relationship and two of her sister's children who had been in foster care.
Charbonneau, a certified nursing assistant, said her troubles began last summer when she lost her job and fell behind on her bills.
"It took a toll on us," she said. "That was our source of everything."
Now working two jobs, she's on better footing, but says she doesn't understand the urgency of the foreclosure proceedings. Rich said it's because payments haven't been made, but Charbonneau thinks it's because she's been vocal about problems with the home – mold among them.
Charbonneau said she was reluctant at first to talk publicly about the issues because she's grateful for the Habitat home, with its 0 percent interest mortgage and affordable payments. But problems with the house have forced her to fork out money for unforeseen repairs, she said.
Built in 2008, the home was the first project overseen by Rich as the then-newly hired construction manager for Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity.
There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms in the basement, and Charbonneau said if a dresser or bed is placed up against a wall downstairs, mold grows on the surfaces.
"This is the major room, major mold," Charbonneau said as she motioned to the wall in one of the bedrooms, adding, "My sons refuse to sleep in here."
One of her sons has asthma, she said, and is bothered by the mold.
She said she's torn out flooring and baseboards and replaced a problem spot on the wall with a mold resistant product, but the mold grows back.
"As soon as I see it, I spray it," using a mixture of bleach and water or a commercial product, she said.
House still vacant
Mold is why the foreclosed-on house next door, built in 2009, is still empty, Rich said. He said the family left in January 2014, but before Habitat could legally gain entry, electricity was cut and sump pumps didn't run, causing the home to flood.
Mold spread throughout the basement, so crews replaced the drywall in the entire house a few months later to be safe, he said.
"We couldn't in good conscience sell to another homeowner unless we did the whole thing," Rich said.
But the family that left said mold was a problem before they moved in.
It's customary for Habitat home recipients to put "sweat equity" into their future home alongside volunteers, and Erica Amaya, now Erica Garcia, said she saw mold growing on a downstairs bathroom wall early on.
"We weren't even done with the house yet," said Garcia, who now lives in Harlingen, Texas.
Rich admitted the wall did get wet during construction, but he doesn't remember any mold growing on it and said it was replaced.
Even so, Garcia said mold continued to be a problem, and the basement floor was often slippery with moisture in that area. However, she didn't bring it up further.
"We didn't make a big fuss about it," Garcia said. "We were just excited to move in and have a place to call home."
Charbonneau said she brought her home's moisture issue to Habitat's attention, but was simply told to adjust the humidity setting. Rich claims Charbonneau never talked to him about it.
Other residents pleased
Between the times the two homes on 10th Avenue were finished, Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity put up six other houses in the area. Several of those homeowners contacted by The Forum said they were pleased with their houses and haven't had any issues.
"The place is excellent," said Ruth Boatright, who lives in a Habitat home in Moorhead. "Couldn't have asked for anything better."
Rich said the first home foreclosed on will be ready for another family to move in soon. Volunteers will need only four or five days to finish the trim and flooring downstairs, he said.
Next door, he hopes Charbonneau will be able to come up with the payments and avoid foreclosure.
"That would be wonderful for everybody," Rich said. "We could avoid the ugliness."
One might wonder why Charbonneau would fight to keep a home she said has been nothing but trouble.
"It's hard for larger families to find a home big enough that they can afford," she said.