A controversial collaboration between HUD and a faith-based charity leaves one potential homeowner raising hell.
Pamela Brownfield didn’t get much sleep on the night of Sept. 13. She was too excited. The next day, the 42-year-old federal employee would move into her new houseor so she thought. Most of Brownfield’s possessions were already in boxes. But she had set aside a goody bag for her first night in her new home, with an air mattress to sleep on and a bottle of wine to celebrate.
Brownfield awoke early and drove to 707 Taylor St. NW, in Petworth, where she was to meet her real estate agent, the sellers of the house, and a private home inspector. Brownfield pulled up to the two-story town housefor which she planned to pay $145,000and admired the fresh new coat of pale yellow paint and the new mahogany-colored door.
“The first time I saw the house [in late June],” says Brownfield, “it looked real ratty. There were holes in the roof, and it was painted doo-doo brown with yellow trim.”
The previous owners hadn’t just neglected to slap on some new paint. They had also failed to pay their Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed mortgage, so the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had foreclosed on the property. In June, under a citywide partnership championed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to get vacant properties back onto the market, HUD sold 707 Taylor St. to the Church Association for Community Services (CACS) for $41,000well below its market value.
“One of our objectives is to try and get neighborhoods turned around,” says Lynne Holloway, project director at the CACSa nonprofit, faith-based organization founded in 1989 to provide community services and raise money for a network of more than 40 local churches. “We’re trying to get these abandoned and boarded-up buildings back into people’s hands.”
The renovation of 707 Taylor St. should have been completed Sept. 14, but from the moment she entered the house, Brownfield knew something was wrong. “I walked into the house and I saw this man putting polyurethane down in the dining room,” she says. “I thought to myself, I can’t believe it. This house still isn’t ready.”
When Gary Mummert, a private housing inspector from Faro Systems Inc., in Silver Spring, Md., arrived, at 9 a.m., he assured Brownfield that he could do the inspection anyway. Mummert noticed the first sign of trouble before he entered the house: a gas leak.
“He told me, ‘You’re not moving into this house today. I smell gas,’” Brownfield recalls.
More than four hours later, Mummert finished. Brownfield, who had already blown up at CACS representatives present at the inspection, was in tears. Brownfield says that Mummert had uncovered a profusion of serious problems, from the basement to the roof: The plumbing leaked. The masonry was cracked. The roof job looked shoddy. Carbon-monoxide detectors were missing. There were even signs of termite infestation.
Mummert also pointed out to Brownfield the red stop-work sticker on the house’s front window, indicating that the CACS contractors had begun renovating the property without obtaining the proper building permits from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
“I was expecting him to find loose doorknobs and maybe make an adjustment or two,” says Brownfield. “But [Mummert] told me things like, ‘They have violated the laws of electricity in this house.’ Because of the inspection, I realized something: That house is a death trap.”
Before driving off, Mummert suggested that Brownfield consult a structural engineer before moving in.
Brownfield decided not to move in at all. “I told my agent, ‘I don’t want that damn house,’” she says.
CACS representatives say that Brownfield acted in haste, before they could set things right. “We told [Brownfield] we would fix everything the inspector identified,” says Holloway. “The reason there were so many problems is because the guys hadn’t finished yet. They were going to finish everything by that Monday. We guaranteed it. And they did finish by Monday. But she wouldn’t hear of it. She just blew up and started cursing and storming off.
“Later, through her real estate agent, I offered to help her with any moving costs that she had incurred because of the delay,” Holloway continues. “I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to make this happen for her.”
Holloway also denies the house was as bad as Brownfield claims. “I really challenge [Brownfield] on the quality of the work at that house,” argues Holloway. “I think it’s great. I think it was a wonderful job. I think that she missed a great opportunity to buy a beautiful house way below market value.”
On July 17, D.C.’s mayor joined Mel Martinez, the HUD secretary, and the Rev. Frank D. Tucker, CACS chair, at a press conference to announce the partnership between HUD and the CACS. Under the agreement, HUD would sell the CACS 300 vacant properties located in five revitalization zones throughout the District. HUD had brokered similar agreements in 15 other communities. The property involved in the deal was assessed at a total value of $14 million, according to HUD.
“I am pleased that we have partnered to build and sustain healthy neighborhoods,” Mayor Williams said. “The cornerstone of safe, stable neighborhoods is good housing.”
“This is exactly what President Bush means when he points to faith that works,” Martinez said. “This agreement is a powerful demonstration of a partnership that will not only put 300 families into homes, but will also breathe new life into these neighborhoods.”
Mayoral critics, however, watched the deal with incredulity. In February, the District’s inspector general had begun an investigation of the CACS, after news reports surfaced about allegations of a suspicious fundraising partnership between the organization and the Williams administration. The Office of the Inspector General did not return pohone calls concerning the status of the investigation.
As late as Aug. 20, Williams was still attempting to quash the rumors of any impropriety in the deal. “The work of the CACS on the Department of Housing and Urban Development project is completely separate from any activities under investigation,” Williams said in an interview on radio station WAMU’s Public Interest program.
Members of the CACS characterize the cash their group will make renovating and reselling the homes as an investment in Washington communities.
“There won’t be any overall profit for the CACS,” says Holloway. “All the money from selling these houses gets plowed back into an account for the project. We are required to take all the houses HUD forecloses on. [The house at] 707 Taylor is one of the better houses. We have houses in hard-core bad neighborhoods where we have to put $120,000 into them. Whatever money we make on the better houses gets put back into an account that subsidizes those that we’re buying and renovating and going way underwater on.”
The CACS currently has 33 houses in various stages of construction. Holloway points out that it is HUD, and not the mayor’s office, that oversees the CACS’s progress. “We are under great scrutiny from HUD,” says Holloway. “We have to provide quarterly reports, and they come and do inspections of our houses on a regular basis.”
Despite HUD’s oversight, Brownfield is not the first person who’s objected to the quality of workmanship in the CACS’s renovations. “I have inspected a couple of their houses,” says Leslie Ruffin, president of Home Survey Co., based in D.C. “And my concern with the CACS, as I’ve seen it in practice, is that they don’t have any standards. I’m very concerned about that. I think that poses a problem for the overall integrity of their program. And it poses a challenge to people who look to them as a source of quality homes in this city.”
In the case of 707 Taylor St., the CACS did more than dispute Brownfield’s assessment of the quality of the renovation. The group put the house back on the market immediatelyafter hiking the price by $20,000.
Brownfield discovered the new listing on a visit to a local spa, where she was chatting about her housing imbroglio with her beautician. The beautician mentioned that another of her clients was about to purchase a house on that same street.
“I told her, ‘I hope it’s not the same house,’” says Brownfield. It was.
A few days later, Brownfield met face to face with Nathalie Rollins, who signed a contract with the CACS on Sept. 20 to buy 707 Taylor St. for $165,000.
When Brownfield found out about the price increase, she was livid. How could the CACS have jacked up the price by $20,000, given the evidence that the house had major defects? She says she tried to warn Rollins, but that despite the problems and the price increase, Rollins still intended to purchase the home.
“[Rollins] told me, ‘When I heard your story, I cried for you.’” says Brownfield. “I told her, ‘You better cry for yourself.’”
Rollins wouldn’t talk with the Washington City Paper about her purchase of 707 Taylor St. The CACS, on the other hand, says that there was nothing odd about the situation.
“We raised the price [on 707 Taylor St.] because we found that there are several houses in that neighborhood selling for a whole lot more,” says Holloway. “We were concerned about undercutting the market. We thought the original price was too low. And, besides, we had done a number of upgrades on that house.” CP