Fixer-Upper Downer

Alice Jones still has leaks and other problems from a three-year-old city repair job.
Photos by Josh Harkinson

When Marilyn Maglitto discovered termites in her home in 2000, she figured they would eat up either her house or her pocketbook. Partially paralyzed since 1986, she survived on a mere $500 a month in social security disability benefits and lacked the money to make repairs. Desperate, she called the city's Emergency Home Repair Program and learned she could qualify for federal funds to fix the problem and even replace her old electrical system. "Before I knew it," she said, "they were offering me all sorts of things that needed to be done."

But her surprise soon turned to concern once the electrician arrived. He showed up drunk, carrying a pack of Budweiser, she said, and rewired her house while pounding down beers. After he left, the wires to most of her appliances began to melt. A city inspector ordered her electricity shut off, but not before the faulty wiring had destroyed her television, dishwasher, microwave and many other appliances. She still hasn't been paid for the damages.

"This has been the biggest nightmare I ever had in my life," she said, sitting below a crack in the ceiling of her living room -- another botched repair -- and chain-smoking. "I honestly wish I had never asked for a termite job."

Maglitto's problems are far from unique. A report completed this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and obtained by the Houston Press found mismanagement of the city's $5 million Home Repair Program to be rampant -- so rampant that HUD sent an enforcement letter two weeks ago ordering the program suspended.

"Due to the very serious nature of this finding, the fact that it is a repeat finding, and the city's continued failure to resolve timely and satisfactorily the complaints made by homeowners about the repair work done on their homes…the city is to discontinue immediately its…housing repair program," wrote Katie S. Worsham. She is director of HUD's Department of Community Planning and Development regional office, based in Fort Worth.

Run entirely with federal money, the program serves disabled and elderly homeowners who are unable to make repairs themselves. Over the past fiscal year, it funded 568 major and minor repairs, at an average cost of $15,613 for a major repair and $6,147 for a minor repair. It also completed more than 300 small repairs using a pool of volunteer laborers. The program constitutes about 6 percent of the City of Houston's $88 million housing budget.

Daisy Stiner, the director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, did not reply to repeated requests for an interview. Her department has 30 days to respond to HUD's report, which examined 26 homes where repairs had been made and found problems with all of them.

"Across the board," the report said, "site visits revealed (1) poor quality workmanship; (2) incomplete work items; (3) huge differences between the estimates of units of materials needed and the actual units of materials applied; (4) numerous undocumented changes from work write-ups; (5) obvious evidence of inadequate initial assessments; (6) obvious evidence of poor on-site supervision and inspections; and (7) very little consistency in determining what repair items qualified under the program."

Repairs on Maglitto's home were overseen by the Houston Area Urban League, one of two private, nonprofit agencies that the city has appointed to coordinate jobs conducted through the program. Maglitto said the Urban League did little to ensure she received quality work.

The Urban League eventually fixed Maglitto's wiring but left her home with other scars. By way of example, she opens the door to her garage, where contractors removed termites, but instead of replacing the dry wall, they left a gaping swath of exposed wood. And in her bathroom, she points to tiles that were broken and a wall that was smashed and awkwardly fixed with Bondo. "My house looked better before they started," she said.

In its report, HUD was sharply critical of the nonprofits and suggested it would be unlikely to reauthorize a program that continued to rely on their work. "What we are saying to the city is we would like for you to get an experienced nonprofit that's done housing before," Worsham said in an interview. "And we would like to know who that is before we would agree to them starting up their repair program again."

Sylvia Brooks, director of the Houston Area Urban League, said some of HUD's criticisms -- such as allegations of overcharging for work -- could have been addressed if inspectors had looked at the nonprofit's files in addition to the files kept by the city. She also defended the appearance of the league's repairs, which she said reflect a mandate to address safety issues before worrying about cosmetics. "If you have an elderly client, the priority is to do work that is going to keep them safe and sanitary," she said. "That may not be what they want done."

Worsham responded that such a mandate is no excuse for performing shoddy work. "The findings that were made had to do with the contracts that were executed," she said. "And regardless of whether or not it's federal dollars, the work should be up to standard."

Fixing up old homes was never a strong suit of Daisy Stiner's, even before she was appointed director of the city's housing program. The Press reported last year that the city inspected four abandoned buildings owned by Stiner and her husband in the Fifth Ward in the late '80s and demolished all of them after Stiner failed to make repairs.

The HUD report remarked that some of the houses examined deserved the same fate. "Several of the homes visited were still in disrepair and needed much work; one was not habitable," it said. "It is apparent that a few of the homes should have been demolished and rebuilt."

Homeowners listed in HUD's report and visited by the Press presented long lists of concerns.

Alice Jones, who received a new roof on her home in 2000, said it still leaks water through her awnings, which have accumulated a black film of mold. Some of her exterior wood trim that was to be repaired has rotted. And electricians cut off power to the overhead outlets in the back of her house. The wires now dangle from her ceiling and the new light fixtures still sit stacked in their boxes in a corner.

Contractors visited Jones's home last week -- apparently in response to the HUD inspection -- and made preparations to resume work on her roof.

But one recipient of "home repair" not listed in the HUD report said her calls to the city remained unanswered.

Hazel Washington, a former nurse who suffered a stroke several years ago, received a new roof in 2000 from the National Association of Minority Contractors -- the other nonprofit used by the city. A year later it began to leak again, but the city still hasn't fixed it. A yellow gash traverses the ceiling of her living room, through which water gushes when it rains.

After years of hounding city officials to fix the roof, Washington gave up. "I don't feel like arguing," she said. "It's not that I don't want it done. But I have lupus, it affects my central nervous system, and I can't deal with this."

So for now, Washington tries to control the problems with tools of her own: buckets, pans and a shower curtain. She uses them in an effort to collect the torrent, but it also migrates through her attic and seeps into the carpet of her grandchildren's playroom.

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