By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"We took everything out — carpet, wiring, drywall, everything — then let the place air out for five straight months," says DeSola, a private investigator.
DeSola — like a small but growing minority of Chinese drywall victims — decided to take matters into his own hands. Ridding his house of the corrosive plasterboard has cost more than $150,000, but it seemed like the lesser of many evils.
"I was taking such a hit anyway, paying for storage, renting another place, and paying this mortgage. I had to just take care of it," DeSola says. "I wasn't going to keep my family in here for another moment."
Most homeowners aren't in a financial position to fix their homes they way DeSola has. Lawyers advise against it anyway because there's no approved means to fix the problem, and doing so could quash any attempt to sue the developers or manufacturers.
But legal help seems an awfully long way off. Knauf, the German-owned company that seems to have imported the most Chinese drywall to Florida, has agreed to forgo the lengthy, expensive process of filing a lawsuit through the Hague that usually accompanies a suit against a foreign company. Instead, Knauf agreed to the class-action suit now being tried in Louisiana.
To join the suit, homeowners had to make a December 2 deadline to join on. Many homeowners likely didn't know about the suit, and many more might find out about their Chinese drywall later, too late to take part. Thousands of victims did make the deadline, and a trial is scheduled to begin this month. Other class-action suits, filed against various Chinese-owned companies, are waiting in limbo for the Chinese to make a move.
Like Lennar, a few homebuilders have offered to fix drywall for some homeowners. But Lennar has drawn criticism for making its owners sign a contract promising not to sue later for medical damages if Lennar fixes the house.
Either way, most owners who can't afford to rip out their own drywall and rebuild their houses from the frame up — a process that will usually cost at least a third of the total cost of the house — are screwed.
On a recent weekday, Wendy Senior bounced her 7-month-old son, Seth, on her lap and fought back tears as she talked about her decision to abandon her house.
After Senior learned about the Chinese drywall in her townhome from the notice taped to her door, she spent weeks researching it, looking for some way to fix the problem. As her due date approached, her panic grew.
Finally, in February last year, she and her husband packed up everything and moved back to her mother's old ranch home in Cutler Bay, which they'd been renting out. "It was the most stressful thing I'd ever done, throwing out all these new things and giving up on this amazing house I'd put all my money into," Senior says.
A month after she moved out, her son was born. Her sister, Maribella, had a baby boy the same day. (The sisters scheduled C-sections at the same time.) But while Senior was able to use her mother's old home, her younger sister had nowhere to go. She's still living in the toxic drywall-infested home.
Senior hefts Seth into a crib beneath a huge, colorful, impressionist-style painting of a Dominican landscape. Although Lennar built her home, she says the company hasn't contacted her once or responded to her lawyer's inquiries about getting the townhouse fixed. She's talking to her bank about changing her mortgage, but she'll likely lose it to foreclosure first.
"Whoever is to blame needs to pay," she says. "Look at us: Our whole world changed from one day to another, and no one is being punished for it."
But life is even worse for Aiasha and Geoffrey Johnson. The young couple had nowhere else to go and can't afford to walk away from their mortgage.
Aiasha sounds confused as she tries to talk about her plans for the future.
"I don't even know what my options are! I just know we need professional help," she says as her young daughter, Beth, plays around her feet. "She's getting sick all the time, nothing works... I don't know who can help us."
Aiasha, who is due to give birth again in February, had hoped she might be able to negotiate a new mortgage and move out by Christmas. Now, she just prays her family can leave before she has another child.
Even that seems impossible.
"I feel like we did something wrong. You're trying to live the American dream, and this happens," she says, shaking her head. "It's just not right."
A reporter in Beijing assisted with this article, but New Times has agreed not to publish the correspondent's name because of the Chinese government's history of persecuting journalists. This story was reported in part through a World Affairs Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists.