Jonathan Hankins stands in the living room of what was supposed to be his family’s home, a filter mask clutched to his face.
He discusses renovations he made at the house, installing tile, painting walls and refinishing floors.
A heavy wooden beam atop the fireplace was one of the last improvements he made, installed as a mantle, before contamination from methamphetamine in the house made his family so sick they were forced to move, he says.
They felt a connection with the neighbors, they say, when they moved into 2427 Radcliffe Ave. in June. And the surrounding block of homes in the Mills Addition — filled with young families — throws off the energy of a neighborhood that’s up-and-coming.
They had expected a fixer-upper, Hankins said. Sold for a song at $36,000, the two-bedroom, single-story home is about the only rough spot on a street of clean and tidy homes.
The home was a foreclosure, claimed by Sterling Savings Bank from former owner Gwendolyn Mitchell and sold in June to the Hankins, according to Klamath County real estate records.
Hankins said the house was sold by the Freddie Mac Homes program, HomeSteps, and brokered through a local real estate office. A spokesman from Freddie Mac was unable to provide comment by press time.
They found a couple of smashed windows, and knew they’d have to put some work into it, he said.
A handout from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed them they were responsible for detecting asbestos, lead paint or other common health hazards associated with older homes.
But they never would have known to look for methamphetamine.
After two weeks of living at the home, Jonathan said he began to suffer headaches and a bloody nose. He and his wife, Beth, had problems breathing and their 2-year-old son, Ezra, developed mouth sores, he said.
Hankins said he and his wife began to suspect something was making them sick. Then a neighbor revealed what none of the paperwork had.
“She said, ‘you bought the meth house, huh?’ ” Hankins said.
No regulation on contaminated homes
Throughout much of the state, said state officials, abatement experts and a real estate lawyer, there is no education — no law or suggestion from real estate agents to have a house tested for drug contamination before a sale.
While the Oregon Health Authority publicly blacklists properties used as drug labs, it only makes the distinction if a property has been busted by law enforcement or if property owners enroll their property in OHA’s Clandestine Drug Lab Program, said coordinator Brett Sherry.
If no bust was made, and OHA never alerted, a house previously used as a drug lab could be sold to an unsuspecting buyer.
Houses also may contain heavy amounts of meth residue even if the drug was never produced there, said Dave Ammons, co-owner at Eastern Oregon Environmental Recovery. The contractor is one of several around the state certified by OHA to clean houses to the agency’s standard.
A house with a criminal past
Several people affiliated with the residence had histories of meth-related charges, according to criminal records.
The previous occupant, James Ray Mitchell, was arrested in June 2010 on methamphetamine delivery and possession charges when a 47-member drug task force from the Klamath Falls Police Department, Klamath County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon Department of Justice raided 14 local addresses, including 2427 Radcliffe Ave. and neighboring 2421 Radcliffe Ave.
A Klamath County District Attorney’s office spokeswoman said the cases pending against Mitchell later were dismissed by the state Attorney General’s office for an unknown reason.
A death notice published in the Herald and News states Mitchell, 51, died in Klamath Falls on May 16.
The Hankins say they knew nothing about the home’s prior occupants before talking to neighbors.
“We were dumbfounded,” Jonathan Hankins said.
Contamination was 76 times acceptable
Hankins said he ordered a test kit from ALS Environmental’s Salt Lake City Environmental Lab, swabbing several surfaces throughout the home and returning the kit by mail.
At their peak, the numbers returned 38 micrograms of residue per square foot — 76 times OHA’s health limits of .5.
State law protects homebuyers by requiring sellers to disclose the history of properties. And in the case of properties blacklisted by OHA, allows the courts to void a sale if sellers don’t make clear that a property was previously a drug lab.
If a bank forecloses on a blacklisted property, it is required to alert potential buyers.
Disclosure only works, however, if sellers are honest and know about contamination. Banks and other lending entities, including Freddie Mac, which sold the Hankins their home, are exempt from disclosure in Oregon on non-blacklisted properties.
That means in foreclosures, buyers essentially are agreeing to purchase a home as-is.
That leaves responsibility for having a house tested to a buyer or the Realtor, if they know to test it, Ammons said.
“It’s good practice, but it’s like a lot of other fees associated with buying a house,” he said. “It’s not like people have thousands of dollars sitting around to do these tests … so it’s not brought up” during sales.
The Hankins now will be stuck with the cost of remediation, which one contractor said costs $5,000 to $8,000 or more, depending on the property, or, now that they know, state law says they can sell the house only if they disclose that it contains meth residue.
A simple swab test costing $50 could have alerted the family to the concentrations of meth residue they believe made them ill.
The family is now renting a house while paying the mortgage on a house they won’t inhabit.