A low-cost MCS apartment building in Dallas
The Raintree MCS housing project in Dallas, Texas provided twelve apartments that were more affordable than most other commercial MCS housing. It has since been closed, but its lessons are still important.
Keywords: affordable, budget, environmental, healthy, housing, apartment, multi family, MCS, chemical sensitivity
The problem of cost
Housing for people with environmental sensitivities generally costs much more than regular housing. At the same time, people with these illnesses often cannot work, have to live on a reduced income and cannot afford the housing they need. Government assistance programs often refuse to pay for such expensive housing and their rules may not allow the renter to pay the difference, even if they could raise the money.
The best approach to safe housing is to build or buy a single-family home made of healthy materials, but that is generally out of reach for people on a modest income. What they can usually afford is to rent an apartment and try to make it work. Rented apartments are generally difficult to modify, as the landlord needs to approve most modifications and once the person moves out, the modifications are left behind or may need to be removed. It is limited what an individual can do to improve an apartment.
There are a number of multi-family projects serving people with MCS, with a few also serving people with EHS. The commercial projects are usually too expensive for most people, and well out of reach of people on a modest income.
Grants have been given to a few projects to make the rent affordable, such as in California, Arizona and Switzerland, but the need for subsidized healthy housing far surpasses the availability.
This article focuses on the Raintree housing project in Dallas, Texas, which created twelve moderate-cost apartments on a commercial basis by focusing on the basics.
A pragmatic approach
The underlying philosophy of the Raintree project seemed to be to provide a place to live that is better than people of modest income can otherwise afford, while accepting that striving for perfection is not realistic on such a budget.
With the apartments dedicated to an MCS clientele it was possible to do modifications that no landlord or regular renter would accept.
While not perfect, the apartments were a great improvement over regular alternatives and they were successful with a high rate of occupancy. The world needs more projects like this one to serve people of modest means.
The project was done by a married couple who were patients at Dr. Rea’s clinic in Dallas. They approached the owners of the Raintree complex and made some sort of financial arrangement we do not have the details of. It appears that they got permission to do the project without actually owning the twelve apartments. They probably had some sort of long-term lease contract and then sublet the apartments at a higher price than the rest of the Raintree apartments. The MCS renters did not go through the Raintree leasing office, but exclusively dealt with the couple. The couple later on moved to another part of the country and left an on-site person to handle the needs of the residents, while they managed the building from afar. The local manager handed out keys, received repair requests and handled most other contacts with the renters. She lived in one of the apartments and received a discounted rent in return for her work.
Renters were offered weekly and monthly rates to serve both visitors to the nearby clinic and permanent residents. In the year 2005 the weekly rate was about $250 while the monthly rate was around $850. This was still high for people on a modest income, such as Social Security, but it was the lowest rate available for MCS housing in the area. Some of the other MCS housing in the area charged more than twice as much.
The original building
The project converted an existing two-story apartment building that was one of about a dozen buildings in the Raintree apartment complex. It was within easy walking distance of Dr. Rea’s Environmental Health Center on Walnut Hill Lane in Dallas.
The converted building was located in the rear of the Raintree complex with a school playground and some greenspace behind it. This location provided a modest distance from other residences, but it was also next to the laundry building. The Dallas air quality was so terrible that the residents rarely sat outside anyway.
It was a quiet location with relatively little noise. As many people with MCS are sensitive to noise, that was an important feature.
A lawn in front of the building created a setback of about a hundred feet (30 m) from the parking lot. This helped with smelly car fumes.
The building had sixteen apartments, of which twelve were converted. The four unconverted apartments were all up against the west end of the building and did not share walls or ceilings with the MCS apartments. Not sharing walls was important as pollutants readily travel through leaks in the walls.
The building was ten to twenty years old when it was converted in the early 1990s. This meant that the building materials had largely offgassed, while the building was still in good condition and there weren’t problems with leakages and mold.
The building was conventionally built with wood framing and wood siding. The floors on both stories were concrete, which was a big plus. Another plus was that the door to each apartment opened directly to the outside — there were no enclosed stairs that could be polluted by visitors, delivery people and maintenance.
The apartments were small, with about 600 square feet (60 m2) of floor space. The kitchen was at one end of the living room and there was one bedroom with a walk-in closet.
Each apartment had a tiny balcony, which was useful for offgassing new purchases and drying clothes.
An outdoor electric heat pump provided heating and cooling through air ducts. There was no gas in the apartments. Each apartment had its own heat pump to avoid sharing airspace.
The apartments had individual electrical meters, which helped keep the cost down. If utilities are included in the rent, people waste electricity more, and it makes the rent higher for everyone.
Converting the apartments
The conversion work was done by the couple themselves with little extra help. Since the apartments had been lived in by regular people, many of them were contaminated with cigarette smoke, pesticides, fragrances, etc. The measures were very basic:
Š Remove all carpeting materials
Š Wash all walls and ceilings
Š Remove very odorous cabinets
Š Foil less-odorous cabinets
Š Vigorous airing out of each apartment
Š Ozoning? (we don’t know if they did it)
The raw concrete floors were left bare, though later on some of them were sealed and a few were covered with tile to seal in contaminants.
The walls and ceilings were washed, but not sealed with foil or a sealer (on the exterior walls and ceilings that would be a mold hazard in the warm-and-humid Dallas climate). Instead, the contaminants embedded in the walls were slowly offgassed over the following years.
No paint was used, presumably both to save money and because paint was (and still is) a difficult issue.
Costly renovation methods were omitted, including tiling the floors and walls, and replacing contaminated drywall and cabinets. This saved a lot of money, but made it take longer for the apartments to improve.
Vigorously airing out each apartment was a central part of the conversion. It was likely done by keeping the doors and windows open as much as possible, with large fans moving the air through. This process likely took months.
We don’t know if ozoning was used, but it is likely since ozoning was very popular at the time. Ozoning can help in such situations, but sometimes it makes things worse and overusing ozone can permanently make the space unlivable.
The MCS residents shared a laundry building with the rest of the complex’s residents. This did not work so well, since regular people used detergents and fabric softeners, which then contaminated the clothes of the people with MCS who used the machines afterwards.
Some residents coped by cleaning a washer and dryer before using them. This was done by running the machines with towels that were not otherwise used. Some also wiped the insides down with vinegar or other cleaners. Some people went together on cleaning up a washer and dryer, which was then used by multiple people with MCS before letting regular folks contaminate them again. It was impossible to fully clean the machines and many of the MCS residents were not able to tolerate clothes washed this way.
The apartments did not have hookups for washers and dryers, but some of the residents had a washing machine they hooked up to the kitchen sink. People sometimes dried their clothes on the balcony or on a wooden rack inside their apartment.
Some residents hired people with MCS, who lived elsewhere, to do their laundry.
It saved money not providing the MCS renters with their own separate laundry, but it was a hardship for the renters. All other MCS housing projects this author is aware of have some sort of laundry dedicated to MCS renters.
It was unfortunate that the laundry building was next to the MCS building, as the dryer exhaust was a major source of outdoor air pollution.
The landscaping around the Raintree complex was maintained by a regular landscaping company. The company used chemicals as normal, except for the lawn in front of the MCS building.
Electrical hypersensitivity (EHS) was not common in the MCS community in the 1990s and no provisions were made in this project.
The electrical feed to the building came through an underground cable to an outdoor closet attached to the end of the building. This closet housed the electrical meters and a distribution panel. From there, electrical cables went to each apartment. These cables all went through the apartment adjacent to the closet and must have created high electric and magnetic fields inside.
There were people with moderate electrical sensitivities living at Raintree, but they avoided the “hot” apartments.
After the year 2000, cell towers were installed all over the area which greatly raised the ambient level of microwave pollution. The walls of Raintree would not have provided any protection.
The Raintree apartments were converted during 1992 or 1993 and were a pioneering effort in healthy housing. We have not been able to contact anyone who lived there, or was involved with the project, during the first two years, so the details of that period are not clear.
The existing non-MCS renters probably moved out over a one-year period as their leases expired. Once an apartment was vacated it was modified and offered for rent without a lengthy period of airing out. The first renters were probably less sensitive than those who came later and they probably continued to air out their apartments so they became better over time.
The most toxic apartments apparently sat empty for quite a while, until they became acceptable to someone.
It was probably a bit rough being the initial renters, but preferable to living in a car or in whatever else was available and affordable.
One long-term renter, who moved in two years after the conversion, said that:
The apartments were good, not great.
He also commented that some of the original building materials were still smelly.
Another long-term renter echoed these sentiments.
A person who wanted to move in during the mid-1990s tried two apartments that were available, and was not able to live in either of them.
The building never became as good as one that was specially built — or thoroughly renovated — but it became better over time and served many people over the years. It was a success when looked at from a longer perspective and in comparison with what else was available in that price range.
Some people moved into an apartment they were barely able to live in and then moved to a better one, once it became available. Throughout the 15-plus years of the MCS apartments, there were always some that were better than others.
Many residents used air cleaners with carbon or zeolite filters to improve the indoor air quality, but it is limited what air cleaners can do.
The outdoor air was never good, since the apartments were located in a very polluted part of Dallas. This may have helped the apartments seem “good,” which they may not have been if located in a pristine rural area.
The project was so successful that two apartments in other Raintree buildings were unofficially converted by people with MCS. They could not remove the carpeting, but they covered it up with plates of galvanized steel that were taped together. These people rented through the regular rental office and thus paid a lower rent.
In 1999 there was a crisis when the Raintree management wanted to paint the wooden siding on all the buildings. The residents eventually convinced them to leave the MCS building alone.
After operating the building for more than fifteen years, the couple who converted it did not wish to continue. The renters were given notice that the apartments would become regular rentals again and be outfitted with carpeting. They all had to move out. We’re not sure exactly when this happened, but it was around the years 2008-2010. People were generally very sorry they had to move and pleaded with the owners. Those apartments are still sorely missed.
Today (2016) the Raintree buildings look much the same, though they have changed ownership and the complex is now called Park Central.
The author paid social visits to some of the Raintree residents in the period 1999-2002. Two former long-term residents, one short-term renter and one person who attempted to move in, were interviewed for this article. I was unable to get information from the owners.
The exterior pictures of the Raintree apartments were taken during a visit in 2015. The building looked the same as when it housed the MCS residents.
More information about multi-family environmental housing
See www.eiwellspring.org/multiunit.html for articles about other multi-unit environmental housing projects.