It is hard to overstate the importance of constructing housing with less-toxic materials for those with multiple chemical sensitivity. One book that is particularly useful in such efforts is Prescriptions for a Healthy House: A Practical Guide for Architects, Builders, and Homeowners, 3rd Revised Edition, by Paula Baker, Erica Elliott, and John Banta.
An important first step toward safe housing for the chemically sensitive was taken by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when it constructed an eleven-unit apartment building called Ecology House in San Rafael, California. This building was opened in 1994. Unfortunately, when Ecology House was first opened, there were apparently some problems with the cupboards (which were then replaced), but the national media interviewed several of the unhappy new residents and had a field day describing the innovative project as a government boondoggle. The whole episode had the unfortunate outcome of giving negative publicity to the MCS community. A high HUD official who invited me to show my original MCS documentary at the HUD Headquarters in Washington, D.C., told me about ten years ago that HUD had been burned so badly by the scathing press coverage of its 1994 project that it was unlikely that the agency would want to launch a similar project anytime soon. It is important to note, however, that once the original problems were addressed, Ecology House has been a very successful project that has been of great benefit to the handful of people who are lucky enough to rent one of the eleven apartments. There continues to be a long waiting list of MCS people from all over the country who would like to live in this building.
The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation continues its attempts to educate HUD officials about the importance of trying to accommodate the needs of the chemically sensitive in the apartment buildings in which low-income people rent apartments using HUD vouchers. In the last few years, we have sent copies of my books and DVDs to the managers of the sixty-nine HUD Field Offices in an effort to convince them that it is important to help the chemically sensitive by restricting the use of fragranced cleaning products and air fresheners in such buildings, as well as instituting an Integrated Pest Management policy to minimize the use of pesticides.
DVDs that we have sent to these top officials contain the following statement from Bennie Howard, who was Acting Director of the Office of Disability Policy at HUD when we filmed him a decade ago.
HUD Policy Statement on Multiple Chemical Sensitivities as a Disability
Hello everybody. My name is Bennie Howard. I am the Acting Director of the Office of Disability Policy at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This video that you are about to see is designed to raise public awareness about how multiple chemical sensitivity affects the lives of thousands of Americans every day.
Federal laws - specifically the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act - prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. HUD considers multiple chemical sensitivity to be a disability under these laws. Despite this coverage, the Department continues to receive many telephone calls and correspondences from people with multiple chemical sensitivity who report that their landlords refuse to reasonably accommodate their disability. If you, or anyone you know, believes that they have suffered housing discrimination because of their disability, please contact the HUD office nearest you. Fair Housing is not an option. It's the law.
Despite the past reluctance of HUD to take on the thorny issue of building housing complexes specifically for the chemically sensitive, we may be approaching the time when the agency will be more receptive to such an idea. In the meantime, until such housing can be constructed, there is much that HUD can do to improve the situation of the large numbers of people with MCS who find themselves using HUD vouchers to pay for low-income housing because their condition makes it impossible for them to continue working.
In the last decade, many public housing complexes have established no-smoking policies for all their units. Instituting bans on the use of air fresheners, scented candles, or fragranced cleaning products should be easier to HUD to accomplish because in this case the agency won't be fighting a major addiction problem. Such policies would only be extending to HUD subsidized housing the policies that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has instituted in all its facilities nationwide. If those policies have been deemed important by the CDC, the top health agency in the country, then it makes sense for them to be implemented by the top U.S. housing agency.
HUD may obtain useful information about the feasibility of constructing MCS housing complexes by following carefully the new apartment building that has just been built in Switzerland. In early 2014, the city government of Zurich opened what is being called "Europe's first chemical-free housing complex." This new fifteen-unit building is located in the suburbs of Zurich. This is a particularly exciting project because it is the first apartment house to be constructed for the chemically sensitive in almost two decades.
A word of caution is in order about the frequently occurring campaigns within the MCS community to raise money to build an MCS housing development on a large tract of land. Such a project would be extremely expensive, requiring many millions of dollars to build roads, bring in utilities, construct houses, etc. The legal costs alone would be large. Even if such a development were built, it would only house a handful of chemically sensitive people. In the long run, it is much more practical to seek help from HUD or to work to convince private enterprise that there is a market for such housing.
|| Read Chapter 2, "The Elusive Search for a Place to Live," of Alison Johnson's book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity, which gives a moving overview of the immense problems faced by the chemically sensitive with regard to housing.