Ulysses Eldridge Eldridge, 42, installed carpet tiles all over the midwest since he was 14 and had never been sick. He runs a small company and is always engaged. On a job site he had prided himself on being the pace setter, keeping people moving. He was a marathon runner at his peak, and had no problem working 12 hours a day for a month. He believes that he needs to set the example for the workers he hires, including his own family members.
In September 2018, while installing carpet tile for Arrow Apartments (then called Prime Place) in Minneapolis, work took an unexpected turn. Working with floor tiles provided by Arrow Apartments, the crew of Ulysses, his father and brother soon experienced allergy symptoms and irritation. They initially didn't think anything from it and felt better after being home for several hours. Wednesday that week was their longest work day and their symptoms returned and persisted. Friday, the ventilation system on the 5th floor wasn’t on and their symptoms returned full strength and they have never really recovered.
On September 15, all three went to Fairveiw medical center for what turned out to be “exposure to chemical inhalation.” They learned that they had formaldehyde poisoning from contaminated carpet tiles. Ulysses recalled that he noticed during that week that the floor tiles they were working with were from China. Building materials from China have notoriously been contaminated. A major 2015 60 Minutes investigation found that Lumber Liquidators was selling tainted hardwood flooring.
“Lumber Liquidators is a U.S. company, but much of its laminate flooring is made in China, and as we discovered during our investigation, may fail to meet health and safety standards, because it contains high levels of formaldehyde, a known cancer causing chemical.”
Articles regularly appear all over the world about other contaminated building materials, mostly drywall.
By the time the contaminated carpet tiles made Ulysses and his crew sick, half of Arrow Apartments had already been filled with residents. Images of strollers filled with vulnerable babies and toddlers ravaged his conscious.
“I could have said nothing and continued working and made millions of dollars but I threw all that away.”
He was concerned and felt responsible. After raising concerns to ownership that were largely ignored, he felt he needed to do something about it.
Even before Ulysses sounded the alarm, Arrow Apartments already had problems.
The Arrow, which is located at 117 27th Ave. SE., is marketed to University of Minnesota students and mirrors the groundswell of luxury apartments that have dotted University and Washington Avenues over the last decade. Initial delays in construction forced residents who had already signed leases to look for temporary housing while the building was finished.
In November 2017, inspections initiated by the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council found numerous construction and fire code violations in the ongoing construction project. Photos obtained by Workday Minnesota reveal sheet rock filled with mold after sitting too long because of construction delays and poor ventilation. The mold appeared to have been painted over and installed anyway. The urgency to build after construction delays and pressure from management pushed crews to build quickly and overlook best practices.
The apartments rebranded from Prime Place to The Arrow two months later.
Elsey Partners, the developers behind The Arrow have a long history of poor development practices in the Midwest.
The company, owned by Chris Elsey, is based in Manhattan, Kansas and has built similar projects in other college student heavy areas like Stillwater, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Nebraska.
The company built brand-new apartments in Lincoln that opened in 2015. Tenants moved in to find dust and construction debris, with some units unfinished.
Ulysses mentioned that similar carpet tiles were being used in projects in Kansas and Oklahoma, including 3 buildings in Stillwater.
In all articles written about the subject the Elsey Partners rarely comment.
Expanding to the Lucrative West Coast
Not satisfied to build properties in the Midwest, Elsey is attempting to take advantage of the lack of communication among regulatory jurisdictions and is taking their show to the West Coast.
Similar to their student centric housing model in the midwest Elsey Partners has plans to build a 184-unit project at 1500 15th St at the intersection of 15th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the gentrifying Mission District of San Francisco, CA.
Anti-market rate development activist Peter Papadopoulos quoted in a 2016 article in Mission Local said:
“This working class neighborhood already has around a dozen developments coming in, bringing more than a thousand wealthier new residents,” he said. Papadopoulos said the neighborhood needed more family housing, not housing for a “transient community” like tech workers.
Another activist, Eddie Stiel, quoted in a subsequent article of the Mission Local said in response to the proposed affordability of the project:
“Maybe relative to other things it’s not expensive, but $1,500 means you have to make $4,500 a month in order to afford it, to get basically a jail cell with a Murphy bed,” said Stiel.
As of February 2018 the project remains in the planning stages.
Despite their relative failure at establishing in the Bay Area, Elsey Partners are now moving their ambitions to housing starved Southern California.
In August 2018 KPBS reported that Elsey partners are looking to build 128 private bedrooms with private bathrooms, along with dorm style shared kitchens and communal lounges near San Diego State University. The San Diego Planning Commission voted unanimously in support. However, the body “went against the recommendation of city staffers, who said city code requires the project to have 21 more parking spaces than what the developer was proposing.”
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune ,the project was approved by the City Council in January 2019 and is expected to be completed sometime January 2021.
Elsey Partners and Their Contractors were Indifferent
When Ulysses first became sick and expressed concern, “the project manager and owner were not responsive. It didn't seem like they were taking the situation seiously.” Ulysses felt they may need to evacuate the building.
He took the initiative and bought a testing device on Amazon, hoping that the results would move the developers into action. The home testing device confirmed his concerns. The sensor used by Ulysses indicated that the Total Volatile Organic Compound levels were at the top of the scale: 9.999. The formaldehyde gas levels were at 3.075, further evidence of toxic exposure. However, these results weren’t definitive. Ulysses wanted the company to conduct their own tests and immediately evacuate the building but they refused.
After he went to ownership with these results they instructed Ulysses to buy respirators to finish the job but the effects where still pervasive. They suggested steam cleaning the tiles and Ulysses rejected the idea, worried that they were just spreading the airborne particles and adding to the cocktail of chemicals.
On a call with the owner, Ulyssess asserted that they “are sweeping this under the rug.” According to Ulysses, the owners still insisted on steam cleaning and said that, “I don’t want anybody doing any testing in my building.”
Ulysses even offered some advice as the drama unfolded.
“I don’t think we are doing the right thing here. I think we just need to get it out in the open that we got some bad Chinese stuff and be proactive about it. You got bad publicity already but you can turn it into good publicity,” he said. “That’s when it hit me that this guy is a monster”
Despite their dismissive attitude towards his concerns he persisted, ”How many boxes do you want me to bring back to Kansas to put in your kids’ bedroom?”
“Everyone of the people in this building is someone’s kid.”
In the end, Ulysses is disappointed and his body has been compromised. Every avenue he pursued hasn’t led to much. Going public was a last resort. He went to OSHA believing that, “I always thought on the job OSHA was a big deal” and was surprised when they did virtually nothing.
The city inspectors tested the building and did not find toxic contamination levels. However, a source speaking to Workday on condition of anonymity, indicated that the carpet tiles were tested after they had been installed, masking contaminants. Instead, city testers should have tested carpet tiles that were available in the basement.
Ulysses also eventually learned that there is no legal case since it’s hard to track the Chinese company that produced the tiles and according to Workday sources, evidently doctored the testing documents that came with their product. The distributor also can’t be held accountable unless someone can prove that they were aware of the contaminants.
Now, Ulysses can barely move without getting headaches and shortness of breath. He hasn’t been able to work or do daily chores. “I shoveled snow for five minutes and my heart started thumping out of my chest.”
He went from being the pace setter, nearly running down hallways, to being functionally physically disabled, unable to do the sort of demanding physical work be built his career, income and reputation on.
Now Ulysses realizes that with such dangerous materials and chemicals for his former employers mean that, 'the way I pushed myself led to more damage.'"
His ongoing symptoms include:
- Chemical induced asthma
- Irregular heartbeat
- Memory issues
- Tinnitus (a ringing in the ears)
- Scent sensitivity
His tinnitus symptoms are a daily reminder of the Elsey Partners group, “If you aren’t occupied it’s bothersome. First thing I hear when I wake up is a siren in my ear.”
He also has sensitivity towards strong smells including glue, chemicals and even diesel fumes when trucks roll by.
As he slowly pieces his life together after giving up so much to be a whistleblower, Ulysses has decided to focus on switching work, “to something outdoors to get some fresh air.”
He hopes that tenants at The Arrow don’t have to deal with what is becoming the irreparable harm of working on an Elsey Partners property and that they find a way to hold them accountable if they do.