Last gasps?

The air at a downtown Sacramento apartment complex may be making some residents sick

Wilma Cabral, 78, says living at Riverview Plaza is making her sick. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency says otherwise.

Wilma Cabral, 78, says living at Riverview Plaza is making her sick. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency says otherwise.

Photo By dominick porras

Seth Sandronsky is a longtime SN&R contributor. Check out his work in the alphabetized archives.

Wilma Cabral, 78, is homesick. Literally. Both her doctor and a local environmental consultant agree that conditions at the Riverview Plaza apartments where Cabral lives are undoubtedly contributing to her allergies and the dramatic decline of her respiratory health.

Riverview Plaza is a 15-story apartment building located at 600 I Street, where the view includes Interstate 5 and the downtown Sacramento rail yards. The building is owned and operated by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and provides 123 affordable apartments to low-income seniors, including Cabral.

A retired cocktail server, Cabral has voiced complaint with the SHRA, to little avail. Her city councilman and the mayor have so far ignored her pleas. Meanwhile, her health continues to worsen.

“Living at Riverview takes my energy away,” she said. “Every evening I have to put on nasal strips to improve my breathing. My throat stays as dry as cotton.”

Dr. Kay Nelsen, of UC Davis Medical Center, has been treating Cabral for three years. Nelsen wrote this June that “there is a reasonable degree of medical certainty that her current environment has markedly contributed to her current medical state.”

Riverview was built with local, state and federal funds and opened in 1988. According to Nelsen, there are associations between Cabral’s allergies and respiratory problems, the building’s age, and previous water damage.

Cabral claims that water has overflowed from a pool on the building’s top floor more than once since she has lived there.

But Nick Chhotu, SHRA’s assistant director, said that there have been no leaks from the Riverview pool the past five years. The leaks were a result of “standard” wearing out of caulk on windows and of seals on outside tiles.

Water intrusion creates building dampness and the conditions for building mold to thrive and to harm Riverview’s residents, according to Roseville-based environmental consultant Douglas Haney, author of Toxic Mold! Toxic Enemy!.

“Mold impairs the body’s chemical function by weakening its cells,” Haney said. He learned of Cabral’s case from a friend at Riverview, Bill Grant, a World War II veteran.

Haney, who’s representing Cabral pro bono, believes that diesel exhaust from I-5 and dust from the Southern Pacific rail yard may be blowing into the building and mixing in the humid conditions.

In fact, Haney believes this potential toxic stew may already be causing respiratory health problems, perhaps even deaths, among other low-income seniors at the 15-story building. While low-income residents are reluctant to raise the issue in public, Cabral provided a list of 14 tenants who have suffered respiratory ailments, including four seniors who succumbed to their ailments.

“I am not in this for me only,” Cabral said.

She has contacted Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway, who represents Natomas and the central downtown area, to discuss the possible existence of building mold at Riverview.

He never replied. Tretheway’s staff did not return a call from SN&R.

At a Sacramento City Council meeting in August 2007, Cabral voiced concerns about Riverview and its 100-plus senior residents. The complaint went nowhere.

This January, Haney urged Chhotu, without success, to test the entire building for mold. Chhotu maintained the building has been cleared by previous testing.

This June, Haney delivered Cabral’s formal complaint on the conditions at Riverview to the office of former Mayor Heather Fargo. She did not reply. Haney filed an elder-abuse complaint with the state this July.

SHRA’s Chhotu would not address Cabral’s specific complaints, citing privacy issues. He said Turner Construction began a $5 million building rehabilitation project at the senior apartment complex last month. The scope of this “routine maintenance” includes resealing the entire building, painting and upgrading the emergency and fire systems. The work is set for completion next March.

Before Turner began the rehab, National Analytical Laboratories, based in Rancho Cordova, tested Riverview’s air quality twice, Chhotu said. “Nothing irregular” turned up in the testing for mold and other airborne contaminants.

Asked about the laboratory’s testing at Riverview, executive director Paula Lee said, “We’ve been out there this year but did not inspect the whole complex.”

Buildingwide testing for mold is what Cabral and Haney want. They maintain that testing the air in Cabral’s 600-square-foot apartment, where no mold spores were found, is insufficient.

Cabral says her health is deteriorating. Thus she wants SHRA to move her from Riverview into a “nice place” and pay for the first six months’ rent.

According to Chhotu, the type of housing voucher Cabral seeks must conform with regulations set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which require applicants to get on a waiting list. The SHRA Web site states:

“The waiting list for the Housing Choice Voucher Program is currently closed and applications are not being accepted at this time.”

Cabral’s doctor Nelsen said, “It would greatly benefit her health conditions if she were to move into another apartment complex. Her disease processes have gotten progressively worse and a new environment would be a key element in treating her symptoms.”

Cabral lives on a monthly Social Security check of $890, paying one-quarter of it for rent at Riverview. She is upset but undeterred in demanding relief from SHRA.

“It’s a fight,” she said.