Featured photo: The elevators in Crystal Towers have long been a source of frustration for residents. Earlier this week, officials with the city said they received parts to start fixing them. (photo by Gale Melcher)
Renovations for Crystal Towers are underway, marking the latest update for the historically under-resourced public housing facility for seniors in Winston-Salem. Asbestos was removed from the building late last week, according to Kevin Cheshire, the executive director of the building’s owner, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem.
Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral that is resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. It can become dangerous if the fibers in the material are disturbed, and it must be properly removed. If disturbed, the fibers can become airborne, enter the lungs and cause tissue scarring and cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. The asbestos was found in the flooring of the building according to Cheshire, who spoke with TCB on Monday.
Crystal Towers residents have long voiced their concerns about management and failing amenities like the often broken-down elevators and flooded laundry facilities. After nearly selling the building, HAWS announced in early 2022 they would retain ownership of the building and start repairs.
According to the city’s website, the purpose of HAWS is to “provide safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations for persons of low income.” HAWS has a board of commissioners comprised of nine members. Full board meetings are held at 12 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, and members’ terms are five years.
Cheshire told TCB that EME Industrial Services, a demolition service that removes contaminants such as lead, mold and asbestos, assisted with the flooring removal.
Residents who spoke to TCB on Sunday were either unaware of the asbestos removal or had concerns about how it was being removed and unsure of where it was located.
One problem after another
The main problem began with the elevators.
For years, residents have been lamenting the lack of reliable elevators within the 11-floor building. Many of the residents are senior citizens and need access to the elevators to move freely within the building or to leave.
A causal factor is that the laundry facilities on each floor have been leaking, causing damage to elevator components. To alleviate this issue, contractors are working on centralizing the laundry facilities to the ground floor and updating the lobby. Multiple layers of floor tile on the ground floor were pulled up to put down new flooring late last week. Cheshire noted that the old flooring was tested before it was torn up, and that it had “less than 3 percent of asbestos-containing materials.” The adhesive mastic affixing the tiles also had asbestos in it. Cheshire told TCB that EME Industrial Services, a demolition service that removes contaminants such as lead, mold and asbestos, assisted with the flooring removal.
Other renovations include the replacement of some elevator parts with the goal of replacing the elevators entirely in the future. Cheshire told TCB on Monday that they were receiving parts for the new elevators that day.
“That building — needless to say — is old,” Cheshire said. “It’s got a lot of failing systems.”
In terms of overall repairs to the building, Cheshire said that the city doesn’t have “sufficient funding” to “address the capital need of our public housing stock.”
As reported by TCB in the past, the decision not to sell the building was largely influenced by the $30 million Choice Neighborhood Grant funding the city received in 2020. However, in a text to TCB, Cheshire wrote that none of that funding is going toward Crystal Towers, and that the grant was for “Cleveland Avenue Homes only.”
The Winston-Salem Chronicle — the city’s Black community newspaper — reported in December 2022 that city and HAWS officials came together to break ground on the project, noting that much of the grant will go toward replacing public housing units with mixed housing and single-family homes.
Regarding funding for Crystal Towers renovations, Cheshire said he wasn’t sure how much they would get from the city.
“[The] city has committed to work with us to make the upgrades, but we do not have a figure on that need yet,” he said, adding that they anticipate having that number by the end of the year. “[W]e do not know how much of that need the [c]ity will fund.”
Removing the asbestos and next steps
Construction of Crystal Towers began in 1971 and the downtown high-rise contains around 200 units, housing mostly low-income elderly residents. Asbestos is often a concern in older buildings like Crystal Towers when it was still used in building materials. Asbestos was widely used in construction until the 1970s, and some home insulation and other building materials produced before 1990 contain asbestos. A Washington Post article from 1978 revealed that some of the nation’s largest asbestos companies concealed evidence about the devastating effects of asbestos exposure on millions of US workers for decades. The uses of asbestos are now restricted but not fully banned.
Cheshire said that EME Industrial Services ran negative air machines, which clean the air on job sites and in confined spaces with substances such as asbestos. He added that the company used a bonding agent so that the asbestos would not become airborne or “friable.”
Cheshire said that the next step will be to assess the other issues and try to secure funding to solve them.
“That’s sort of down the road later this year, early next year,” he said, adding that they hope to complete the current projects in the next two or three months.
TCB spoke with Wesley Hamm, project manager at EME Industrial Services, who confirmed Cheshire’s description of the process.
The floor material was “non-friable,” Hamm said.
“If you can’t pulverize it in your hand that means it’s non-friable,” Hamm explained. “Stuff that’s friable would be like popcorn-textured ceiling, pipe insulation, stuff like that…With a floor tile you can’t really crush it in your hand because it’s so thick.”
While the company did not shut down the HVAC system during the process, they did place a thick plastic covering over the return ducts. Hamm said that this is allowed by the state, and added that a third-party air monitor came in and collected air samples to make sure that it was safe.
According to the American Cancer Society, if building materials that contain asbestos such as older insulation and ceiling and floor tiles “begin to break down over time, asbestos fibers can be found in indoor air and may pose a health threat.”
“The air monitor has a license from the state of North Carolina. He brought his pumps in to run air samples and he took them to the lab and they read them, and they certified that the air was clean,” Hamm said.
A few social media posts circulated last week raised concerns over the presence of asbestos and cited workers who appeared to not be wearing protective equipment or wearing masks. Hamm said that this was when employees were still moving equipment in and out.
“Once the abatement starts they have to put on a suit and a respirator,” Hamm said.
“We know how to safely handle asbestos and follow the regulations that are set forth by the state of North Carolina,” Hamm said.
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