By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Del Monte has refused to authorize final payment. The contractor responded by threatening to put a lien on her house. "I offered to do whatever she wanted," insists Gilberto Castillo of Arpechi. Housing officials even offered to knock $653 off the bill, to no avail. Del Monte will not allow Castillo to work on her house. She insists she simply wants to get a fair value for the money her family will pay back someday. As of this writing, both sides are locked in an uneasy stalemate.
Tom Calabrese is special projects administrator at the agency, where he has worked for 22 years. "I believe in this program," he says. "It has helped a lot of people." When homeowner complaints seem insolvable, Calabrese is often called in to broker a solution. "No, [the contractors] didn't do 100 percent right, I can say that for a fact," he concedes. "They are doing rehab, not new work, and that's tougher." He points out that it can be very hard to gauge when damage is a result of a contractor or wear and tear by a homeowner. He also notes that sometimes it's impossible to satisfy certain people, and there is little the county can do.
A special grievance panel exists to handle cases that cannot be successfully resolved, he says. The panel, composed of three members from the housing agency, is appointed by the agency director but has been used only once in the past ten years. In addition, when a contractor does shoddy work or when pressing problems arise during a job, program supervisors often authorize extra money for additional repairs or new contractors out of a special fund called 2199. Fund 2199 paid $646,427 from 1993 to 1997.
Most of the homeowners interviewed by New Times shared Clara Del Monte's belief that they were overcharged for poorly executed work they had often not originally wanted. (Housing agency officials say that if inspectors see violations of county codes, these corrections must be included in the rehab.) One homeowner claimed he was billed for 1160 square feet of exterior painting when his house consists of only 879 square feet. Another says that rather than replacing the pipes under her sink, as a contractor had promised, he simply wrapped tape around them. A third told the story of having a nonworking air conditioner installed.
Clients also believed they had paid good money for worthless materials. Kitchen cabinets, countertops, and linoleum floors were often considered to be of inferior quality; many buckled or broke soon after installation. More than a dozen of those interviewed complained of poor paint jobs. Contractors didn't wash the walls before applying paint, they said. Workers stood on furniture, didn't use drop cloths, applied only one coat, and used indoor paint for outdoor walls.
But when repairs involved plumbing, electrical systems, and roofs, the outcome was sometimes much more serious. Gloria West is living out her retirement in a small house she has owned for twenty years in a quiet neighborhood next to a canal in Carol City. Suffering from leg problems for which she draws a disability check, she turned to the home rehab program and its offer of a no-interest loan in 1991 for some long-needed repairs to her bathroom, kitchen, and roof. Six years and $7000 later, she says, her house is just as bad, if not worse, than before the work was performed.
"It was such a rip-off," she declares in retrospect. It took phone calls, letters, and two different contractors to fix her roof -- and in the end it still leaked, she claims. Twice, the county pulled money from Fund 2199 for a total of $5800 to redo work: The first time, program managers justified the withdrawal because the general contractor and the roofer both went out of business. The second withdrawal became necessary after a trip by a housing agency inspector to the county permit department revealed that someone had forged the signature on West's inspection reports. In fact, her repairs had not passed inspection. Still, even with the additional repairs, the newly installed tiles fell off her shower wall and the kitchen sink leaked. To this day her sons make it a regular part of their visits to climb on her roof and sweep off puddles of water.
Calabrese says there's a simple reason for the complaints over inferior materials: "Our program has never allowed for top-grade materials," he explains. Yet everything installed has always met legal standards, he insists, and homeowners are always free to upgrade the materials from their own pockets. Those on the receiving end of cheap fixtures say they might not have agreed to the work at all had they been informed what they were going to get. And they say they weren't told about upgrade options.
Most basic work for the program is covered by a one-year warranty, typical for the industry. But often by the time a homeowner has lodged a formal complaint with the housing agency, a year has passed. Further, many complaints are rejected because the work has been approved by Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation inspectors.
The housing agency review team assembled by the director to improve the program found that "the service the Construction Rehabilitation Section provides includes ... what is best described by staff as 'moral' support to the homeowner during the time of rehabilitation." It's a statement that might provoke exasperated laughter from homeowners, particularly the blacks who complained to New Times that Hispanic housing agency inspectors and contractors often carried on conversations in Spanish, leaving the homeowner to guess what they were saying. In such an atmosphere it's not surprising that many clients suspect price fixing between contractors and inspectors.