She wasn’t about to settle

09/16/2010 12:00 AM |

The town performed repair work on Regina Morris

For two decades, Riverhead’s community development department has run a home improvement program that has helped hundreds of people do much needed maintenance on their homes, work they might not have been able to afford themselves.

But one Riverhead resident has sounded a sour note in what otherwise seems a sweet song. She says the town-run program, which is funded by the county, state and federal governments, used subcontractors who did sub-par work on her mobile home — a claim verified by state code enforcement officials.

The town is now being forced to make some changes.

“I’ve had nothing but problems,” said Regina Morris, who lives in the Oakland Ridge mobile home community on Osborn Avenue.

Last year, Ms. Morris, a single mother living on a fixed income, received a grant that paid for about $15,000 worth of work on her mobile home, including bathroom renovations and the installation of new living room windows in September 2009.

She has a list of complaints including water leaking through the windows, installation of a water heater that wasn’t designed for mobile homes and bathtub caulking that’s not adhering and has allowed water to get underneath, creating a persistent mold problem.

An inspector from the state Division of Code Enforcement confirmed Ms. Morris’ allegation that a bay window in her living room was not properly installed. He also said that the town did not secure the necessary permit from its own building department and that Ms. Morris’ contractor was not licensed to work on mobile homes.

Town officials say they are doing what they can to remedy the situation and have taken steps to make sure all work done through the program is in compliance with town code.

Community development director Christine Kempner said that, although she could not discuss Ms. Morris’s case, the department always works with homeowners who participate in the program to fix any issues.

“We do everything necessary to resolve it,” she said.

The home improvement program’s purpose is to keep people with lower incomes in their homes, which helps stabilize the housing market, Ms. Kempner explained. Since 2008, the program has helped 49 families and spent $600,000 in grant money.

“We help a very, very large number of people,” she said.

Ms. Morris said she called state officials only after her complaints were not immediately settled by the town.

“I just didn’t want to feel I had to settle for this workmanship just because I wasn’t paying out of pocket,” she said. “You still take pride in your home.”

Jack Peacock, the state code compliance specialist who inspected Ms. Morris’ home, said that because the work was done without the necessary permits, the town building department did not perform a final inspection.

“Because of misunderstanding within the town government, there was not a building permit drawn,” he said, adding that such discrepancies are quite common in many towns across the state.

Ms. Kempner said her department did not seek building permits for some jobs because the community development department has its own housing inspector. Her office will now seek building permits for all future projects. “That was another technicality we have rectified,” Ms. Kempner added.

Leroy Barnes, the town building department administrator, said he was not aware that community development was performing work on dwellings without permits.

“I guess Regina brought light to everybody,” he said of Ms. Morris. “Everybody is learning from this particular case.” He added that the building department would now check contractors’ licenses to ensure they are certified to work on mobile homes before they are awarded jobs.

Ms. Kempner said the pool of local contractors who are licensed to work on mobile homes is very small. The town has started to offer a certification course to increase the number of local contractors who can work on mobile homes.

Ms. Morris is the first person to complain to the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation about the town program, according to vice president and director Dominic Martello. The agency has awarded Riverhead’s community development department more than $700,000 in grant money since 2001. His agency inspected Ms. Morris’ home and, like the state code enforcement office, found some of her complaints to be valid.

Mr. Martello said that if a housing program is found to be acting out of compliance with AHC guidelines, it could jeopardize future funding. The agency is still evaluating Ms. Morris’ complaint and monitoring the town’s response, he said.

“The town been a regular grantee in this program,” he said. “One complaint does not jeopardize future funding.”

Although Ms. Morris may have been the only one to file a formal complaint, her friend and neighbor Donna Bambrick also has a laundry list of gripes about the work done through the program on her mobile home nearly three years ago.

Ms. Bambrick said contractors left piping uncovered when replacing her toilet, which caused sheetrock to fall in and clog her pipes. She also said a portion of the exterior wall was cut out and covered with a metal plate, which is now rusting.

She said the contractor was less than responsive to her complaints. “They didn’t want to hear it,” she said.

That is not to say there aren’t people who were satisfied with the work performed.

Joe Nicosia, a senior who lives in the Glenwood Village retirement community on Mill Road, said he had a new roof and doors installed on his mobile home, and the contractors “were the nicest people and they knew what they were doing. They were impeccable.”

Ann Marie Lazowsky, who lives in a home on Kings Drive, seconded Mr. Nicosia’s stance.

“They did a wonderful job for me, I had no problems” she said. “I have brand-new cabinets, new sink, everything was new.”

Still, Ms. Morris is waiting for the additional repairs on her home.

Because her bay windows were not installed properly, the manufacturer is refusing to warranty them, she said. “I was told that I would have to address that with the contractor,” she said. “He said there was nothing he could do.”

Ms. Kempner said the town will have to solicit bids all over again for the repair work on Ms. Morris’ home.

“I am truly grateful for the funding, the loans and grants that are available for homeowners, but this program needs to be restructured and closely monitored by the agencies that provide the funding,” Ms. Morris said.

She said she hopes her complaints shed some light on the program’s flaws, and that the town’s positive response prevents others from having shoddy work done on their homes.

“If it saved one person from having to deal with a leaky roof … then it’s worth it,” she said.

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