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Tribal Housing waiting list grows because of meth contamination

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PABLO — More than half of the housing units tested by Salish Kootenai Housing Authority in the past 18 months have had some sort of detectable methamphetamine contamination, creating skyrocketing cost burdens for the organization and highlighting a potential health hazard in the community. 

Executive Director Jason Adams said the organization has a long-standing zero tolerance policy for drug usage, but recently established policies to test all vacated units for methamphetamine. Adams said the results of the new policy were shocking. 

“This is not necessarily anything new to us,” Adams said. “It is sad to say we have had a lot of experience with methamphetamine contamination in our units … Back in the ‘90s we had some labs that popped up and it was the first exposure we had to what we commonly know now as meth.” 

The authority has had a strict drug policy for many years that requires only preponderance of the evidence for eviction, meaning a drug conviction is not necessary for a tenant to be removed from their home. The slightest evidence of drug usage or paraphernalia is enough for an eviction notice to be served on any of the 445 rental units the authority manages. 

Approximately 18 months ago, the authority administered methamphetamine tests to all homes where a tenant had been evicted because of a drug violation. Every year, between eight and 10 homes were tested because of drug violations. The new policy was put into effect after a tenant insisted on a methamphetamine test before moving into a unit that had no signs of meth usage. Adams and his staff were reluctant. There was no history of drug usage in the unit that the authority knew of, and the home had undergone an extensive set of routine renovations. 

“To our surprise and shock, really, it tested positive,” Adams said. “All the money we had put in to rehabilitate the house didn’t address the contamination of meth … It was an eye opener for us.” 

Professional remediation had to be performed to clean the home, and the authority decided to start testing all vacated units. Staff was trained on how to administer a basic air test to help limit the costs. Each air test costs approximately $200 to administer. In a year and a half, 62 units of 110 tested were positive for meth. 

Once the home tests positive on the air test, a time and resource-consuming process begins. 

“The cost is astronomical,” Adams said. 

Tests that swab the walls determine how much meth has soaked into the surfaces in the home, and results are sent to a remediation contractor that can properly treat and dispose of tainted materials. In some cases, a light chemical wash takes care of the problem. In others, contamination is so extensive that the home has to be gutted. In one instance, $53,000 worth of cleanup had to be done to get the building back to livable levels. Total costs of methamphetamine remediation since the new testing regime began have totaled more than $325,000, and the amount keeps rising. More than 36 units are on a waiting list to be cleaned, according to maintenance director Sid Shourdes. 

“Those are 36 homes that could be used by families, but they are waiting to be remediated,” Shourdes said. 

The increased cleanup costs mean less funds are allocated to maintaining other homes. 

“A lot of the money was supposed to be used for long-term maintenance,” Adams aid. 

By doing extensive testing, Adams hopes the authority can re-coup some of the cost. 

“The mission of the authority right now in regards of meth is to get a baseline,” Adams said. “Every unit will eventually have a clean test so then the tenants after that will know that it is getting a clean test … If anything happens, by policy when you move out, you will be charged for it to be cleaned.” 

Ultimately, Adams hopes more people will quit using the drug. There is no scientific research that indicates the exact ramifications from long-term exposure to methamphetamine, but the authority’s board has decided to err on the side of caution and get the units cleaned, Adams said. 

“We don’t know the health costs yet,” Adams said. “But there are, we believe.” 

Community members can help by reporting suspected drug usage to the authority or Flathead Tribal Police. Law enforcement and the housing authority are in regular communication with each other regarding potential drug usage. 

“If you see something, say something,” Adams said.

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