28 Vassar Lake Drive sits in a mossy cul de sac on the eastern edge of Vassar’s faculty housing. Dark gray siding peeks out through chipping white paint on the exterior and weeds have collected along the property’s perimeter. Some of the top floor windows are buffered by plastic sheets. Inside, dust and debris litter the sinking floorboards and there is visible water damage at the corners of the ceilings. Accessible only through a narrow and creaky staircase, the basement is perhaps the worst-kept area of the house, with insulation spilling out of the walls, a leaky furnace and exposed pipes. The house creaks like a building that has been decaying for years. But in fact, this college-owned residence has been empty for only four months.
Between January 2014 and November 2015, former Grounds Manager Kevin Mercer lived at this address. His time there was marked by a number of trials, but Mercer explains that it wasn’t the uneven floors or the chipping exterior paint that left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. Instead, he claims something more sinister was at play: the presence of asbestos and radon at dangerous levels.
“The floors in the living room were so bent you could actually see the basement between the floorboards in the living room … And then my neighbor told me that it tested positive for radon,” Mercer said.
Mercer was hired by the College in February 2013. In his time at Vassar, he vastly improved the campus landscape and ultimately won a Grand Award for the College. After arriving, Mercer lived in several different faculty houses including a Watson apartment and a different property at 49 Collegeview Avenue. After six months, according to Mercer, the College moved him and his family to 28 Vassar Lake Drive, despite him never requesting a relocation.
The house was in such a shambled state when Mercer moved in that he was forced to spend his own money on repairs and on basic furniture the College didn’t provide. As he explained, “When I went into the house I had to do a lot of painting myself. The walls were in bad shape. The floor was horrific and it didn’t even have a shower.”
He continued, “I noticed there was a leak in the furnace that was leaking oil all over the floor and I put a work order in for it and it never got repaired.”
According to Mercer, the house he moved into was deteriorating fast. He repeatedly called into question the structural stability and safety of his home. As he testified, “Had the College alerted me in advance to the moldy condition and moisture problems throughout the house at 28 Vassar Lake Drive, I would not have signed the lease.” But what of the allegations of unsafe radon levels?
Vassar’s faculty housing is organized through a leasehold housing program. Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann states that the leasehold program is important for maintaining the residential nature of the College. She explained, “The leasehold program was established at a time when housing prices in the area were such that few families could afford to purchase a home without extraordinary means. By purchasing only the home and not the land, as in the leasehold program, home ownership became more feasible with a typical faculty salary.”
According to the faculty handbook, the leasehold program stipulates that the College maintains control of the land on which houses are built and leases the space to homeowners for a set time period. Homeowners may then buy or rent the houses from the College. Residents of faculty housing must communicate with Vassar before making major changes and when they seek to resell, the College approves the process.
In the case of 28 Vassar Lake Drive, the leasehold housing process stipulates that the former owner of the house, Professor Emeritus Robert Fortna, had to have the house appraised. In other words, the College needed to have examined the house and conducted inspections of the property before purchasing it back from Fortna. If something unsafe was found, either the presence of substances like powder asbestos or high radon levels for example, the previous owner either fixes the problem or foots the bill for the changes in the form of a lower resale price.
But even if the College promises that the money it saves by re-buying properties at lower prices will go towards fixing an issue, Mercer contends, there is no guarantee it will follow through with the necessary repairs. In contrast, Begemann has stated that in her experience, the College has, in fact, implemented repairs for the houses that it acquires. As she testified, “The College has made repairs [addressing harmful toxins] before houses change hands.” However, some disagree. Professor of English Donald Foster disagrees, believing that the College does not conduct these repairs, otherwise it would have addressed the harmful toxins in 28 Vassar Lake Drive after it was acquired from Fortna.
Vassar’s faculty housing website lists inspection information for all houses that are up for sale. After 28 Vassar Lake Drive was purchased, its inspection information was posted. The radon tests, according to Foster, were conspicuously missing. He testified, “Allison O’Brien confirmed to me that she’s gotten inspections for every house and the College legislation… requires the Office of Marianne Begemann to disclose the appraisals and inspections not just to potential buyers but to the faculty housing committee. Their office has refused to do that for some houses including 28 Vassar Lake Drive.”
Foster was Mercer’s neighbor during his time on Vassar Lake Drive. He often spoke with Mercer about the house and has since conducted his own research on its current state. Foster was the first person who encountered difficulty acquiring the housing inspection information. He argues that the possible presence of dangerous toxins like radon is the reason for the purposeful nondisclosure of certain inspections pertaining to faculty houses. “I’m convinced that the College won’t show anyone the Home Inspection, which the College admits that it got. And in the case of the radon in the houses that they were just selling, it appears that they just destroyed one [inspection] because the radon levels were high,” Foster explained.
He continued, “College legislation says that Marianne’s office has to disclose [the records of houses they’re selling] and she has just flatly refused to do it, which is not decent.”
Begemann’s account ran counter to Foster’s, however. She wrote, “We make all reports and information in our possession available to faculty who express interest in the properties and also encourage potential buyers to obtain their own inspections as well.” Email testimony from Foster calls into question Begemann’s account of the College’s disclosure of inspections. It took numerous emails between Begemann, Director of Faculty Housing Allison O’Brien and Foster in order for Foster to gain access to the inspections, despite expressing interest in the house in question. Once Begemann sent the inspections to Foster, he discovered that the radon reports were from 2009 and 2005, making them inconclusive to the current condition of the house.
The Policies Governing College Housing section of the Faculty Handbook states that inspection reports should be made available to any and all potential buyers. Begemann’s statements were consistent with this policy when she refused to share the inspection report for 28 Vassar Lake Drive with The Miscellany News. As she wrote, “Regarding the inspection you have requested, we do not share such information about specific residences except when those homes are posted for sale and when faculty members interested in them request it.”
Foster’s effort to find more specific information on what appraisers saw in the house proved fruitless. In an attempt to know the truth about the condition of the home, Foster actually administered a radon test in the basement of 28 Lake Drive himself. The test indicated that radon levels in the basement of the Vassar Lake Drive property were measuring an average of 6.3 pCi/L, significantly higher than the maximum safe level of 4.0.
But how do these high radon levels play into the leasehold process? According to the Faculty Handbook, if a buyer or renter moves into a house and then finds a cause for concern, it is the financial responsibility of the leaser to make the repair. The College doesn’t have to pay to repair an unsafe house if the discovery of unsafe conditions is made after move-in. Only a few months after Mercer moved in, radon levels were at dangerous levels and he claimed there was exposed friable asbestos in the basement.
One other complication in Foster’s effort to learn more about the house is its imminent demolition. The house is scheduled to be torn down. Mercer suggests that removing the house could be interpreted as intentional destruction of evidence. Whatever the intentions of the College are, the fact remains that soon, it will be impossible to assess the living conditions and safety concerns at this address.
Given the severity of these problems, Foster and Mercer argue that the College should have been aware of these unsafe conditions before renting. Foster contends the missing radon reports for 28 Vassar Lake Drive only make this exchange more suspicious. He commented, “Almost all of the B&G workers…recognize asbestos when they see it because it’s a known hazard on campus. So I think the burden is really on the College to show that for some reason they lost the inspection.”
After Mercer left his job at the College, under unfortunate circumstances and conflicts with the Administration, he and his family suffered a number of health effects including severe chronic migraines. Whether or not these symptoms were a result of Mercer’s time living at 28 Vassar Lake Drive, the health of his family led him to question more seriously the toxins possibly present in his former house. Mercer’s family vacated the house permanently at different times. His wife left before to take a job in Pittsburgh that would ultimately make it financially feasible for Mercer to leave Vassar and move on to a new job in New Jersey. The family was so desperate to leave Vassar and faculty housing that Mercer and his wife currently live and work in two different states. The house now stands empty, with cupboards and drawers left open. Various objects remain tucked away in quiet corners: a television remote, a metal water bottle, the signs of a hasty retreat by the Mercer family. Much remains unclear about Mercer’s time living on college property. But no one can deny his claims raise serious questions about housing safety at Vassar.