Meth tests lead agency to evict

Tacoma Housing Authority cracks down on residents suspected of using drugs

Cheryle Webster was evicted from her public housing last week after her apartment at 602 S. Wright Ave. tested positive for methamphetamine. She is among dozens of residents. She was about the 80th resident the Tacoma Housing Authority has evicted after meth testing since the agency started cracking down on use of the drug in its

1,400 units about 18 months ago, director Michael Mirra said.

“We take meth very seriously because of the health risks it poses and the damage to the property,” he said. “Our meth plan is pretty aggressive. We think it’s an appropriate response to what is a serious problem.”

Webster, 64, and some of the other residents ousted said the policy is too tough. They contended they don’t use meth, and that former tenants must have been responsible for the tainted apartments.

Mirra acknowledged the tests don’t determine when the contamination happened.

“The testing itself won’t tell us that,” he said, “but we make a judgment about whether the tenant is responsible for the contamination, based on whatever information is available.”

If officials decide a resident isn’t responsible, the Housing Authority offers other living options, Mirra said. Otherwise, the person must reapply, and won’t be considered without compensation for the decontamination and proof of treatment and lifestyle changes, he said.

Residents can appeal the decision.

“We would schedule a hearing in front of a grievance officer (an attorney who works with the Housing Authority) as quickly as people’s schedules would allow,” Mirra said.

‘Nothing left’

In the case of the Wright Avenue units, Mirra said, law enforcement officials told the Housing Authority they had arrested a tenant who had been selling meth and gave names of five residents who had been buying the drug.

The Housing Authority had the six tenants’ apartments tested and the results found meth contamination, Mirra said.

The six had to leave by Aug. 28. Webster and two others were told the day before, another tenant had already been arrested and the two others left when they heard what was happening, Mirra said.

Webster moved to a Tacoma motel while she figures out her next move.

“I’m thinking about buying myself a cheap fifth wheel and putting it somewhere to live in, because I don’t know what else to do,” she said last week.

Webster, who drove trucks for a living for 29 years, has a 2001 conviction for unlawful use of drug paraphernalia, which court records show was for a film canister of meth found in a car she was in.

In an interview with The News Tribune, she said she didn’t know the drug was in the car and hasn’t had anything to do with meth since then.

She said the neighbor arrested on suspicion of selling meth had visited her apartment from time to time, but, to her knowledge, never with the drug.

Webster said she didn’t see how she could find another apartment within her means. Her rent with the Housing Authority, where she’d been living for about 13 months, was $190 a month. Her monthly Social Security income is about $650.

“I have nothing left,” she said the day she moved out of the Wright Avenue building. “I’m losing my coffee table, my entertainment center, because I don’t have anywhere to put it.”

A daughter, Janet Motz, said space was too tight to accommodate her mom at the Yelm residence she shares with a roommate.

“I don’t have a clue what we’re going to do,” Motz said. “They haven’t proved nothing except that drugs were done in that apartment. When?”

0.1 part per billion

That’s not for the testing to decide, officials said.

“We just stick to the facts we have, and that’s the laboratory data that shows us the particular level at only one point,” said Brad Harp, program manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s hazardous materials program.

“It could be present because someone has it on their hands from manufacturing. It doesn’t take very much.”

Under state law, the contamination level at which the Health Department shuts down an apartment is 0.1 part per billion. The results of the Wright Avenue units were 120, 57, 32, 22, 6.6 and 1.5 parts per billion, Harp said.

It wasn’t clear which of those readings came from Webster’s unit.

A private company, Rainbow International, does the testing, overseen by the Health Department.

At the same time as the Wright Avenue tests, Rainbow International checked two units at Salishan that registered 0.54 and 26 parts per billion, and one at the Lawrence Street apartments that was 0.79.

Since the Housing Authority began targeting meth users and sellers in spring 2012 ,it has found more units than expected, Mirra said.

In response, the agency increased its contract with Rainbow International for testing and cleanup through the end of the year to $1.2 million from $250,000.

The agency’s board recently gave Mirra the authority to raise that amount to $2.5 million, if needed. The contract allows the authority to extend the timeline for the work for up to four more years.

Paying for cleanup

Last week Bill Bachman watched as his neighbors rushed to move their things out of the Wright Avenue building. The belongings strewn across the lawn prompted a woman passing by to ask if it was a yard sale.

He likes that the Housing Authority is trying to keep its units clean, but thinks it should go further.

“If you’re going to test, test every room,” Bachman said.

The Housing Authority says it does test each apartment whenever the tenant changes.

Bachman also wondered whether it was safe to live in the building.

“What was in there?” he asked. “Did it leak through the walls? What about the rest of us? It might be safer to live out here.”

The Housing Authority had the same concern and had an airflow study of the building done, Mirra said.

“We do not have that problem,” he said.

After a positive test only the unit itself and not the whole building needs to be decontaminated, Mirra said.

The cleanup isn’t cheap. A highly contaminated apartment can cost about $25,000 to make fit for service.

Officials take legal action if they believe the person responsible for the contamination has the money to pay for the cleanup, Mirra said.

But that’s seldom the case, he added.

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alexis.krell@ thenewstribune.com