Home Wreckers

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

But this remedy could bring its own problems, as has happened on the federal level when contractors and homeowners dealt with each other directly. Just last year HUD shut down the contractor section of its home-improvement loan program. Under the federal agency's rules, contractors located eligible homeowners, informed them of the program, promised repairs, and then acted as middlemen in setting up loans. But unscrupulous contractors were performing shoddy work, falsifying documents, overcharging clients, and circulating deceptive advertising. HUD officials found that once the contractors helped homeowners secure loans for repairs and received payment, they often failed to finish the work.

Although it's debatable if these changes will solve endemic problems, it is certain they cannot erase past instances of abuse uncovered by New Times in a random sampling of a dozen files from the county home-rehab program, along with interviews with homeowners who have filed complaints.

A recurring theme among those interviewed, including Bastien, is that county-provided contractors did lousy work. Bastien's three-bedroom house sits on a quiet street in a solidly working-class neighborhood. The home is simply furnished; its well-ordered and comfortable front room contains a few chairs and a small couch. A ceramic Jesus kneels atop a table near an old computer. Bastien, who has been in the United States for fifteen years, proudly points out that everything in her home was purchased new.

After hearing about the program from her neighbor, she went down to the housing agency office, located at 2153 Coral Way, to see a finance officer. The employee judged that Bastien's income made her eligible for assistance, and an inspector from the rehab program was dispatched to make a repair estimate.

It wasn't until October 24, 1994, that inspector Willy Fulger arrived at Bastien's house and compiled a writeup of repairs -- many of which she hadn't even thought to ask for -- including new windows with bars, new kitchen cabinets, electrical work, a refurbished roof, and exterior stucco siding. He estimated the work would cost about $19,000. Although Bastien had gone to the county specifically to get her roof repaired, she says she welcomed the inspector's offer of additional repairs, especially when she was told that her monthly payments on the loan would amount to only $54.91.

Fulger determined that the roof's condition placed the rehab work in an "emergency" classification. The housing agency uses the emergency designation in situations in which damage to the home could threaten occupants' lives. (In an emergency, the maximum loan is $20,000.) Program officials used a computer to pick a contractor at random from the list. (The bid process was bypassed in the interest of a speedy resolution to the homeowner's problems. Under the new rules, the homeowner must select a contractor for emergency loans as well). In Bastien's case, the computer selected state-licensed Tony Dean Construction, Inc., as general contractor.

Despite the expedited emergency loan, Paul Dean, president of Tony Dean Construction, didn't begin work until April 1995, six months after Fulger's initial visit. The work proceeded sluggishly, Bastien says, with Dean and his crew disappearing for weeks at a time. When she complained, the contractor became abusive, she says. "He acted like I was his wife or something." (The phone number given for Tony Dean Construction in the county's contractor database has been a residential number for a year, according to a woman who answered the phone and claimed not to know Dean. County building officials say Dean is currently changing the name of his company. The contractor's home phone number is unlisted).

Bastien watched in dismay as workers tore up her house under Dean's supervision. At one point, she says, laborers broke a faucet in the bathroom. When she demanded that Dean replace it, he refused. The last time she saw him was when he informed her in August 1995 that he had completed the job, four months after he started. On September 10, 1995, the county inspected Bastien's house. "The construction work has been satisfactorily completed in accordance with the construction contract," the inspector wrote.

But Bastien began to find problems almost immediately. At first they were obvious and mainly cosmetic. Her windows and the bars were installed crooked. Workers improperly sealed the edges of the bathroom sink, leaving behind unsightly lumps of caulking. The kitchen cabinet was too small, and there were gaps between it and the wall. Soon the cabinet bottom started to break. Bathroom tile came unglued.

Then the problems turned more serious. The exterior stucco began to crack. In December, a few months after final inspection, flames suddenly shot from a wall socket, she says. The fire began during a family dinner; fortunately her brother had the presence of mind to flip the circuit breaker before the fire spread. (Despite a one-year guarantee on county-assigned work, Bastien decided to hire her own electrician to fix the problem.) The contractor returned for minor repairs, such as covering the stucco cracks with concrete and paint. But when the 1996 rainy season began, the roof leaked over her son's bedroom. She called A&W Ferguson Roofing, the company Dean had subcontracted. Although sympathetic, the roofer complained that the general contractor had never paid him for the job so he wouldn't return, she recalls. Bastien called the housing agency and was told to send her complaint to them in writing. On June 10, 1996, Bastien wrote: "My son has all his stuff wet by the leak. I have to lay a blanket on the floor every time it starts raining to keep the water from running all over the room."

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