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.)

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."

For weeks she waited for a reply; the leak did more damage. Streams of water ran down the walls. "I've worked hard to own my house," she says in disgust. "The leak was worse off after they finished."

On July 10 a frustrated Bastien sent another letter to the county: "My son quit sleeping in his room. This is an emergency situation because we are living now in the hurricane season and my roof is about to collapse. I am scared. I have reported my case to an attorney because nothing is really done seriously. Those two men, I mean the contractor and the roofer, are playing a game with me. I am begging you for your help, please help me."

At the end of July, Dean wrote A&W Ferguson Roofing, demanding that the subcontractor return and repair the roof. Three months later -- more than a year after the county had signed off on its final inspection -- Oscar DeGuevara, a construction supervisor for the rehab program, sent a letter to Dean and ordered him to repair the damaged ceiling and redo both exterior and interior paint jobs. The contractor failed to respond, and DeGuevara sent another letter on November 18 that included a threat: "If these repairs are not completed by November 25, we will assign another contractor to complete the repairs and remove your company from the list of contractors doing business through our program."

In the end, that's exactly what happened. Tony Dean Construction was pulled from the list of participating contractors in the rehab program by the final months of 1996. That year alone, the contractor had eight complaints lodged against him with the county.

Bastien still smarts at the memory of her home rehab odyssey. Whenever she needs a reminder, all she has to do is look around her house. On the ceilings of various rooms, one can still see the discoloration from the leaking roof. The bars on the windows are still askew, and the kitchen countertop wobbles. "I thought it would be a great deal," she says ruefully.

Other dissatisfied homeowners interviewed by New Times haven't even taken their complaints to the agency, a fact perhaps not surprising considering the program's target population: immigrants, the poor, and the aged. As one elderly woman, who asked not to be identified, explained in Spanish: "I don't want to cause any problems with the authorities."

Some clients did complain, outraged that they or their children were forced to spend considerable sums and have nothing to show for it. Clara Del Monte, a 71-year-old widow, is demanding justice for a wrong she insists cuts deeper than simply a job poorly executed. "What hurts me is that this was the government that is supposed to be protecting my interests," says Del Monte, who fled Cuba with her husband and children in 1961.

Del Monte and her ailing spouse Gaspar went to the county in July 1995, seeking a loan to repair their decrepit twelve-year-old roof after reading an article extolling the program in El Nuevo Herald. When inspector Ricardo Gomez came to the house, he urged her to take full advantage of the opportunity by having her house painted inside and out and replacing the tile in her utility room. "I only wanted the roof, but he kept saying, 'We have the money. Why don't you do more?'" she says.

Gomez estimated the cost of the work at $9518, which he classified as an emergency loan. Del Monte qualified for a deferred loan, one that is payable upon her death or the sale of the property; but even though she wouldn't have to make payments, she protested that the amount was too much. She claims Gomez told her it was an estimate only and might change. When the job was awarded to the state-licensed general contractor Arpechi Windows, Inc., the cost did indeed drop -- by three dollars.

At the end of the year, Del Monte's husband died. Four months later Arpechi began the emergency repairs. The results sent Del Monte into hysterics. Workers dribbled paint on the floor, painted over fixtures, and, she adds, trimmed her patio door improperly and failed to replace the crooked frame so that it became a struggle to open. Less than a year after completion of the work, a painted exterior wall was splotched with mold. More disturbing, Del Monte alleges, are her fears about the materials used for her new roof. She points to a rotten wooden beam sticking out of a sagging shingle above the front door. Despite her misgivings, Gomez said nothing during the agency's final inspection, and an inspector from the county Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation certified that the roof was up to code.

Incensed at what she believes was shoddy workmanship and substandard materials, Del Monte invited several contractors to give her estimates on what it would cost for them to have done the job. Their figures only fed her anger. According to the county, painting her house cost $1890; a contractor Del Monte brought in gave a price of $675. The county's price to install a new roof: $7615. Two separate roofers obtained by Del Monte would have done the original work for $4000 and $3000, respectively.

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.

Calabrese acknowledges there may be relationships established between contractors and inspectors. "I've had meetings with inspectors to ask them to stay at arm's length, but I wouldn't say they've used friendships to favor contractors," he maintains.

It's understandable that the Metro-Dade Housing Agency would want to distance itself from some of the contractors on its list. Of the 29 contractors listed as participating in the program as of January 1, 1998, thirteen have had complaints on record with the Regulation Division Contractors Licensing and Enforcement Section of the Planning, Development and Regulation Department, which keeps a database that goes back to 1992. The complaints range from minor mixups with permits to shoddy workmanship and failure to fulfill contractual obligations.

But according to construction manager Oscar DeGuevara, the housing agency can't inform homeowners about contractor complaints. Nor can it favor county-licensed contractors over those who have a state license, even though the former are more easily prosecuted for malfeasance. (County-licensed contractors go before a construction board that adjudicates complaints, but the state is more likely to consider such disputes civil matters best settled in court, according to enforcement officers at the Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation.)

One of the last recommendations the housing agency task force made to director Rodriguez was to develop a better marketing plan to advertise the program, one that would also underscore the message that the money given is a loan, not a grant. Certainly agency officials could find it difficult to sell the program if they rely on word-of-mouth. They might run into comments like these from Gloria West: "I wouldn't go this way again if I had a choice."

West knows an elderly couple whose house is in desperate need of rewiring, but she hesitates to tell them about Single Family Rehab. "I feel bad, but I don't want to recommend the program to them," she says.

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