Thanks for Nothing

Photo by Jack GouldThey came, they saw, they did nothing. Two years ago, county officials promised they'd straighten out a controversial program to fix the broken-down homes of the poor. Today, dozens of participants in that program still live in homes that could provide the backdrop for a miniseries set in Appalachia, and many say the program made things worse.

"Our house was in better shape before the work was done than it is now," said Anaheim resident Naomi Rodriguez, who says she was forced by county housing officials to sign a $39,000 second-deed trust to pay for county-approved work on her home. "Everything is falling apart, and the carpet is coming up," she said. "The stucco and paint are falling off the side of the house. The plumbing is very bad, especially in the shower, because the water just goes through the walls. When it rains, the water leaks through the vent for the stove top."

Rodriguez isn't alone. Several program participants contacted by the Weekly say that despite the high-profile news stories and official promises of action two years ago, their houses are still wrecks.

Between 1994 and 1997, the county program was supposed to allow low-income residents to pay for renovations to their homes with federal vouchers. All the homeowners had to do was choose from among several county-approved contractors, wait while workers brought their homes up to code, and then sign over federal government checks or pay with government-backed, deferred-payment, low-interest loans.

But residents began to complain that they were being pressured by officials with the Orange County Housing and Community Development (HCD) to pay for work that wasn't done properly. County building inspectors intervened in 1996. Their conclusion: 91 of the first 102 low-income homes they inspected were in violation of one or more of the county's building codes.

Several victims of HCD's rehab program were represented in a 1997 claim filed by Costa Mesa attorney Theodor C. Albert, who is now preparing a class-action lawsuit against the county. Citing legal reasons, Albert refused to discuss the lawsuit. But one of his plaintiffs, Stanton mobile-home resident Luetta Belanger, told the Weekly she obtained a federal grant that was supposed to pay for a new roof on her mobile home. What she got from county-approved contractor Gary's Mobile Homes (which has since gone out of business) was a much-too-heavy roof that leaks when it rains and caused her floor and walls to buckle from the pressure. "Everything in my coach is an accident waiting to happen," she said.

Gary's Mobile Homes also did work for Thelma Frank and her husband, Francis Powers, both fully disabled Anaheim residents who took part in the county rehab program four years ago. Things didn't start out well: the couple swears a new bathroom cabinet was secondhand, and its doors didn't match (one was white, the other off-white). While she was using the new shower, Frank says, the nozzle broke off in her hand.

Meanwhile, Frank's county-approved contractor built two sides of a fence around her house but failed to finish the job. Linoleum installed on the kitchen floor quickly began to curl up around the edges. Items in her garage—such as a stepladder and a 5-gallon jug full of change—went missing, and furniture left outside was ruined in a rainstorm. Someone must first go inside and press a button to get Frank's new garage door to open.

Ultimately, Frank became so upset that she flooded HCD with phone calls asking for an inspector to take a look at her house. She says former HCD director Dhongchai "Bob" Pusavat showed up, glanced around and promised her that all the work had been done properly. She says he warned her that if she continued to harass his agency with telephone calls, "I'd get nothing."

Four years later, that's exactly what Frank says she's gotten from HCD. Worse still, she says she owes the county $39,000 for the work. "When I got this place, I had in mind that I would someday be able to give it to my children," said Frank. "Now, if I die, my children are going to have to pay the $39,000 before they can get the house. And just look at what I got in return!"

The county's investigation into HCD's rehab program started when another Anaheim resident who also happened to be a county employee, Anita Marcario, complained. County building inspectors finally showed up at her house to investigate and found that none of the work met the county's building codes. That sparked similar inspections and similar findings, all of which were kept secret until The Orange County Register broke the story in January 1997, sparking a yearlong controversy.

Strangely, few heads rolled. Shortly after the Register began running stories about the HCD scandal, Pusavat suffered a stroke, reportedly upon learning that he had been fired. Following Pusavat's dismissal, the Orange County Sheriff's Department announced its own criminal investigation into the HCD rehab program, and at the request of Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a federal investigation into the affair.

In January 1998, a year after the scandal broke, county CEO Jan Mittermeier announced the results of the county's management audit of HCD. While the audit barely looked into HCD's rehab program, it found "no significant problems" with the department. County director of Internal Audit David E. Sundstrom told a mystified Register reporter that the audit had barely focused on the rehab scandal because that was the point of the ongoing Sheriff's Department investigation. The Reg correctly noted the sheriff had yet to produce a single finding.

A week later, an obviously embarrassed Sheriff's Department finally acted, filing charges against just two people, a Laguna Beach homeowner and her private contractor—both for allegedly filing false claims. So ended the county's scrutiny of more than 200 rehabilitation projects handled by HCD and its private contractors.

In an interview with the Weekly, Spitzer said he was surprised to hear that two years after the scandal broke, many repairs to the original rehab work still hadn't been made.

"You'd think the county would have bent over backward to fix this problem," he said. "When I became involved in this investigation, I was promised that the homeowners would be protected. If I learn that those repairs still haven't been made, then I will demand a comprehensive walk-through inspection of those properties."

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