Seven Steps to Nowhere

The money Ora Nance Lewis borrowed to repair her home is a small piece of the approximately $1.5 million in grant funds made available to San Fran-ciscans each year through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Lewis' loan came through a program designed for senior citizens who are living on fixed incomes and, therefore, have limited access to credit.

The loan program seems reasonable and simple enough: A senior citizen borrows to repair his or her home; the government gets repaid, with interest, after the senior dies or sells the house.

But the program has operated in anything but a reasonable or simple manner. In fact, it is a textbook example of the problems that seem to accompany most of the bureaucratic and paper-heavy housing programs HUD has designed through the years.

The administration of senior home rehabilitation loans has fluctuated over the years in San Francisco, flowing back and forth between the Mayor's Office of Community Development and the Mayor's Office of Housing. This oscillation seems to have confused everyone involved with the program. (For example, the Mayor's Office of Housing, which currently administers the senior loan program, needed weeks to locate the public files relating to Lewis' loan.)

And there is another layer of bureaucracy and confusion between the federal money and the elderly person who needs it to repair a home.

The Housing Conservation and Development Corp. (HCDC)is one of eight nonprofit agencies that contract with the city to manage the rehabilitation of homes belonging to low-income seniors. About 80 percent of the HCDC's $330,000 annual budget comes from federal grant money. According to the city's annual report on such things, the HCDC intends to rehabilitate 30 homes this year.

In other words, the nonprofit will receive an average of nearly $9,000 in public money for each rehabilitation project it helps negotiate and manage for people like Ora Nance Lewis.

A careful examination of public documents strongly suggests that the HCDC and the Mayor's Office of Housing are doing much the same thing -- and doing it badly, at great cost, and with an almost unbelievable amount of bureaucratic dawdling.

This is the procedure for paying a construction contractor working on a senior rehabilitation project under the direction of the HCDC, assuming a best-case scenario that involves no problems or questions:

1) Contractor submits a request for payment for work that has been completed to the HCDC.

2) HCDC construction manager inspects the work, gets the homeowner's approval, and sends a disbursement request to the Mayor's Office of Housing.

3) Mayor's Office of Housing project manager reinspects the work and sends a request for payment to an escrow agent at a bank in Southern California.

4) Escrow agent reviews the request forms, issues a check payable jointly to the contractor and the homeowner, and sends it back to the Mayor's Office of Housing.

5) Mayor's Office of Housing reviews the check, logs it in a file, and forwards it to the HCDC.

6) HCDC logs and reviews the check and has the homeowner sign it.
7) The check is given to the contractor.
"It's a lot of paperwork," acknowledges Addie Wallace, a rehabilitation manager for the HCDC. "But that's the process."

The process is even more complicated and muddled when things go awry. Representatives of both the city and the HCDC have attended nearly every meeting between Sun Construction and Ora Lewis. Employees of both agencies have inspected the scene at Lewis' house multiple times. Yet after months and months of meetings, the project is incomplete, and both Lewis and Sun feel wronged.

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