Home Wreckers

Dade's home rehab loan program is more adept at breaking hearts than repairing houses

Marie Bastien might never have needed help were it not for Hurricane Andrew. After all, the hard-working single mother of three boys managed to buy her own home just five years after immigrating to Miami from Haiti. But in 1992 the lashing wind and rain of the storm damaged the roof and walls of her small, wood-frame house near the Palmetto Expressway in Carol City. Insurance and her earnings as a secretary at a mortgage company weren't enough to cover the repairs.

Late in 1993 a neighbor told Bastien of a Dade County Housing Agency program that seemed tailor-made to solve her plight. The premise sounded simple enough: low- or no-interest loans for home rehabilitation to aid senior citizens and the working poor, who normally cannot qualify for them. The neighbor told her that the county would even select a contractor and oversee the work.

"I was so excited," recalls the 50-year-old Bastien, her face lighting up at the memory. "I needed to repair my house, but I didn't have the money. I said, 'Let's go!'"

But what started with so much promise slid into a traumatic ordeal lasting years and dwarfing the anguish imposed by the hurricane. She says it was Dade County, not Mother Nature, that endangered the lives of her children and nearly caused her house to burn down.

Since 1984 Dade County's Single Family Rehabilitation Program, a division of Special Housing Programs, has administered and allotted more than $17 million to repair 2078 houses, according to housing agency officials. But despite the noble purpose for which it was founded, Single Family Rehab, as it is commonly known, has left many homeowner clients -- including a majority questioned by New Times -- feeling victimized and bitter. They complain of poor materials, shoddy workmanship, and contractors who overcharge. And, they contend, only the threat of legal action or the intervention of politicians can force county officials to respond adequately to their complaints.

Single Family Rehab traces its genesis to a federal Housing and Urban Development program, born of the boundless optimism of the 1960s. In 1964 HUD inaugurated a loan program through which low-income families could obtain funds for home repairs. The program was financed and administered by HUD, but local governments had to agree to let the federal agency operate in their communities.

In 1974, however, HUD allowed Dade County to administer its own program, financed through community block grants. Ten years later the state legislature imposed a tax on the sale of commercial real estate in this county. In the last fiscal year, that tax -- which also goes to other county housing programs -- amounted to $9.5 million. The average total loaned by Single Family Rehab hovers around $1.5 million per year.

Individual loans of up to $30,000 are available at little or no interest, depending on income and family size. Homeowners with the ability to pay do so on a monthly basis. Deferred loans are collected when the homeowner dies or transfers title of the property. Only Dade residents who don't live in Miami, Hialeah, or Miami Beach are eligible to participate. (The three excluded municipalities have their own housing programs, for which they receive state and federal grants.)

Initially an arm of the Dade County Department of Housing and Urban Development (commonly known as Little HUD), Special Housing Programs (the section that conducted home rehabilitation) split off in 1988 to form its own department. County officials had hoped the division would make both departments -- Little HUD and Special Housing -- more manageable and thus more accountable, a major concern after two grand jury investigations, in 1986 and 1987, had scathingly labeled Little HUD "deplorable" and a "slum lord." But in 1996, after Little HUD was finally removed from a federal list of troubled public housing authorities, the two departments merged and became known as the Metro-Dade Housing Agency, this time in the hopes that central organization would make operations more efficient. The new entity is one of the ten-largest public housing authorities in the nation.

But problems persist, as the agency has been forced to acknowledge. This past February an internal task force of three section managers formed by director Rene Rodriguez -- who assumed leadership in 1996 -- made recommendations for improving the construction section, which agency officials admit has long been a concern.

The task force found little coordination between the section that handles loans and the one that oversees construction. It recommended that a computer system keep track of ongoing work. The team also zeroed in on the practice of keeping a list of 30 contractors who had exclusive rights to all county home rehab projects. The agency's policy had been to rotate through the list, allowing seven contractors to bid on any given job. The lowest bid within ten percent of a program inspector's estimate got the work. Even though the jobs were often small, there was a waiting list of general contractors who wanted to join the program.

"When you refer a contractor, you are a party to that contractor," says Tom Calabrese, special projects administrator for the housing agency, referring to the decision in April of this year to abolish the obligatory use of the contractor list. "The county then has a liability that shouldn't be there. The biggest complaint has been that 'they' didn't like the contractor that 'we' picked, but that shouldn't be an excuse not to make payments." Now homeowners have to find their own general contractors, who must meet the bid specifications of program inspectors. If a homeowner is unable to locate a contractor, one from the list will still be available. (One contractor interviewed for this story said that, despite the change, he was still receiving work.)

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