Originally created 02/04/01

Housing complaints prompt action



Augusta's Housing and Neighborhood Development officials have used warning letters to contractors and an independent home inspection service in an attempt to remedy myriad complaints of substandard work done through the city's rehabilitation program.

But Margaree Proctor said the problems still exist, and she blames the city for almost killing her two weeks ago when a fire erupted from an electrical box at her Bransford Avenue home.

"I reported this problem before in 1997," she said. "They just ignored me. I guess because I'm disabled and sick they just looked over me."

Fed up with the department run by Keven Mack, Mrs. Proctor brought her complaints about the rehabilitation program to an Augusta Commission committee Monday.

Mr. Mack and the city's senior inspector, John Kemp, deny ignoring Mrs. Proctor's complaints. Far from it, they said. They just finally gave up trying to respond to her "incessant" demands.

Mr. Mack and his department have been criticized by homeowners and commissioners for the past year about the quality of work of some independent contractors who rehabilitate the homes of poor and elderly Augusta residents. The contractors, who must bid for the jobs, are paid with federal tax dollars from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department.

Mr. Mack has maintained that his department does good work and is reluctant to acknowledge the problems. Those who work for him have blamed the homeowners, saying they don't understand that the program's goal is to keep the homes livable, not make them pretty.

But The Augusta Chronicle discovered this week that Mr. Mack sent out warning letters to all the contractors participating in the rehabilitation program last February and again in June.

In a letter dated Feb. 15, the contractors were encouraged to perform at their "highest standard" or risk not having their work approved by city inspectors.

The June 1 letter admits some of the contractors' work has been criticized and says "disciplinary action will be taken against any party that does not work nor perform within the spirit and intent of this program."

"While I realize that we all make mistakes during the rehabilitation process, I again, remind you of the importance of performing to standard," Mr. Mack wrote.

Also in June, homeowners descended on commissioners during a public meeting to decry the shoddy work. Their complaints prompted the city to order an independent appraisal of the work at two of the houses.

The report revealed multiple deficiencies, but Mr. Kemp disputed many of the findings claiming that, like the homeowners, the independent appraiser did not understand the program.

What the program does

HUD provides Augusta with money - $1.15 million last year - to rehabilitate the homes of low-and moderate-income homeowners. Homeowners qualify for various types of loans based on income. Some of the loans are "forgiven" at the rate of 20 percent a year, costing homeowners nothing.

Others qualify for "splits," low-interest loans that pay part of the rehab contract costs, with HUD money paying the rest. Some repay the entire amount of the rehab cost.

The city is responsible for monitoring the rehab work, although HUD officials will inspect some of those kinds of projects during its normal inspections every year, said HUD spokeswoman Linda Allen.

HUD referred complaints it received from three Augusta homeowners back to Mr. Mack's office last year. One of them, from Rozella Road resident Shirley Milligan, listed 62 defects she saw in the work completed in April. Among them were broken furniture, curling linoleum, paint on wallpaper, lamp shades, furniture and floors, and a fan over the stove that blew trash off the roof into food on the stove.

Mrs. Milligan said she wrote HUD in September because she could not get any help from the Augusta housing office.

"The inspectors have not bothered to make the contractor redo the things he messed up in my home," she stated in herletter.

The contractor who worked on Mrs. Milligan's home was suspended Dec. 14 on grounds he did not complete several projects on time and that some of his work was substandard. Another contractor was suspended July 5 for not completing a project on time and doing sloppy work.

Housing officials cite the severely dilapidated condition of many of the houses they tackle and the $25,000-per-house budget constraint as reasons many problems aren't remedied. They say their job is to fix what's broken and that they don't have the money to complete homeowners' wish lists.

Last month, the Augusta Commission formed a subcommittee of Commissioners Andy Cheek and Bill Kuhlke to review the entire Housing Department and make recommendations about its future. The subcommittee expects to submit its first report Feb. 12.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mack, whose job by his own account is in jeopardy, has directed his staff to address the complaints. Inspectors and contractors have been revisiting the homes, taking pictures, listening, sometimes disputing the homeowners' claims, and taking notes.

But there's something about the timing that disturbs Mr. Cheek.

"On top of all that we're going through, it's kind of shady to see all of this stuff being taken care of right now," he said.

Better late than never

After J.W. and Vietta Anderson voiced complaints about the program in the Jan. 7 edition of The Chronicle, they got action.

Mr. Kuhlke, a contractor, went to see the work at their Moore Street home firsthand. What he saw prompted him to return a week later with housing inspector Ralph Kirksey, contractor Mack Curry and Mr. Mack.

Mr. Cheek and Commissioner Marion Williams, harsh critics of the work done through the program, had visited the Andersons earlier and made a list of problems.

Last week, Mr. Kirksey went through the house again with color photographs of two dozen flaws to be corrected, including mismatched molding and paneling, cracked caulking, an unstable commode and a hole in the brick foundation of the house.

Mrs. Anderson, 72, is hopeful the house will be properly repaired. She is also a little skeptical.

"I do believe they will do it," she said. "I hope."

Two weeks ago, the Housing Department also responded to homeowner Cynthia Mack's complaints about the 1999 rehabilitation of her Bullock Avenue home by sending Mr. Kirksey and contractor John Burroughs to the residence.

During the 90-minute inspection, Mr. Kirksey and Mr. Burroughs disputed some of Mrs. Mack's complaints.

"I don't believe we had nothing to do with this part right here," Mr. Kirksey said, examining some nail holes and split wood in the bedroom.

Mrs. Mack, who was formerly married to one of Keven Mack's relatives, disagreed.

"Believe me. Nobody ever lived here but me, and I'm telling you that you did," she said. "This is one of the problems with the program. Ralph Kirksey is here telling me what was and was not done, and I'm the only one who lives here. I moved into this house brand new. And he's telling me what I'm telling them is not true."

Mr. Kirksey said he is very familiar with Mrs. Mack's house, and each time he goes there he finds more problems that weren't created by the rehabilitation work.

"It's just nitpick little stuff, a lot of it," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Burroughs said he knows he does good work.

"I've been doing it for 18 years," he said.

And despite the contentions of Mr. Mack and his inspectors that Mrs. Proctor is taking advantage of the system, the panel box and wiring in her house was upgraded immediately after the Jan. 14 blowout. The electrician billed the city $1,100 for the work, Mr. Mack said.

Mrs. Proctor began complaining about the lights going out soon after her house was rehabilitated in fall 1997.

She wrote three letters over the course of several months to the department.

In April 1998, Mr. Kemp responded, telling her the contractor would continue to honor the one-year warranty on her house and emergencies through September. Other than that, he said, the obligation to her under the rules of the housing rehabilitation program was over, and the contractor would no longer respond to her "incessant calls for repairs."

City inspectors say Mrs. Proctor, 53, has exaggerated the severity of the blowout.

"Ain't no fire shot out of that box," said Mr. Kirksey, who based his opinion on the state of the old panel box, which appeared to have shorted out.

"That's the only thing that we can see that happened," he added.

The inspectors said the house was wired for 150 amps during the 1997 rehab, which should have been adequate.

"Since the work was done, we don't know if the lady has added additional circuits," said inspector Tom Loughran. "We don't know, but that woman is not going to tell you."

Mrs. Proctor denied overloading the wiring in her house with other appliances and scheming to get the city to maintain her home, as housing officials and contractor Elbert Pope of Pope Builders & Designers contend.

"No," she said "I worked in my lifetime. I'm disabled, but I ain't crazy. When they did this work, they didn't do it right."

Two sides to every story

Mr. Mack, his staff and some of the contractors say complaints are part and parcel of the construction business. By publicizing homeowners' complaints, they say, the newspaper is exacerbating the problem.

"With all the articles that show up in the paper about shoddy workmanship and this, that and the other thing, which is coming from people that have no qualifications, other than their own opinions - they have no idea what this program does. What the object of it is," Mr. Kemp said.

"They go out and say we have shoddy workmanship, and you wind up, you're building a self-fulfilling prophecy. We start getting people that we haven't heard from in years telling us we have shoddy workmanship. The warranty expired two or three years ago, and now they're calling up and they say, `We had shoddy workmanship on our house."'

Contractors are required to respond to homeowners' calls for warranty work, Mr. Kemp said.

"So they go out," he said. "If they don't go out there, the homeowners call us, and we make sure they get out there."

But there is a limit to how long a contractor is required to attend to complaints, Mr. Pope said.

"We do this work on these people's houses. It's not a marriage," he said. "They've got a year's guarantee. I buy a car. I've got whatever guarantee they give me, plus mileage, and whatever comes first, then that's the one that goes. So maybe the public needs to be educated on what they're supposed to get."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.