This Old Screwed-Up House (The Sequel)

Will the government ever fix Ora Nance Lewis' home?

Ora Nance Lewis' biggest mistake was playing by the government's rules. The 86-year-old retired schoolteacher attempted to fix her house with the assistance of the government program designed to provide just such assistance.

The result has been a two-year construction nightmare that continues today.
SF Weekly reported on the mess inside Lewis' house in July (see "Little House of Horrors," July 9). The government said then it would fix the problem.

And nothing has happened.
Lewis' predicament began this way: In 1994, the octogenarian applied for a loan through the federal government's Community Housing Rehabilitation Program (CHRP) to repair a once-grand house on Lincoln Avenue that has been home to four generations of her family.

The program is supposed to provide loans and project management services for senior citizens who need to repair their homes. The Mayor's Office of Housing is charged with administering this federal housing program; that office, in turn, contracts with Housing Conservation & Development Corp. (HCDC), a nonprofit agency, to manage rehabilitation projects.

But nobody, it seems, has ever managed Ora Nance Lewis' project.
It took nearly two years for the government and HCDC to get a contractor to begin construction work on Lewis' home in June 1996. After construction began, Lewis endured flood, fire, crooked cabinets, damaged floors, a collapsed roof, and multiple electrical problems, among other things.

Then, in January, with the project still incomplete, the contractor, Sun Construction Co., filed a mechanic's lien against the property after a dispute over payment and workmanship.

In June, officials with HCDC and the government said they would move quickly to get Lewis' house repaired. But exactly nothing has happened since Sun left the project. And the agencies charged with managing this project along not only have not moved it; in some instances, those agencies have actually stood in the way of progress.

On July 14, after nearly three months without word from the government or its representatives, Lewis received a letter from HCDC recommending she take one of three paths to resolve the dispute:

1) Arrange a meeting with representatives from HCDC, the Mayor's Office of Housing, and Sun Construction;

2) Enter into arbitration with Sun Construction; or
3) Retain an attorney.
The letter ignored reality. There had already been a plethora of meetings on the Lewis project, to no avail. Lewis wanted nothing further to do with Sun. By this time, San Francisco attorney Nancy Tompkins had volunteered to help Lewis get her house in order, starting with the removal of a legally unenforceable lien that had, at any rate, expired.

Furthermore, Lewis' family had already secured another contractor to finish the house, but couldn't get a bid without a description of work from the project manager.

On Aug. 7, Lewis received another letter from HCDC, which restated the obvious but provided no real help in restarting the project:

"Your letter indicates that you have identified a prospective replacement contractor. That's wonderful. However, there are a number of things that need to happen prior to a new contractor starting, and a meeting would be the most effective way of finalizing a resolution ....

"The removal of the mechanic's lien is still an issue that should be discussed."

On Aug. 29, Tompkins wrote to the Mayor's Office of Housing requesting a meeting to resolve the Lewis project. Instead, the Mayor's Office of Housing referred the situation to yet another agency, the City Attorney's Office.

Besides suggestions that meetings be held, the Mayor's Office of Housing, HCDC, and the City Attorney's Office have done nothing to fix Lewis' house. And representatives of those agencies seem more than a bit confused about the project.

"At the present time we are not working on that right now," HCDC Rehabilitation Manager Addie Wallace said when contacted Friday. "We are trying to remove the mechanical lien that the contractor placed on the house. I suggest you call Marv Rance at the Mayor's Office of Housing because he's handling this."

When Wallace made her comments, the lien had already expired. It was removed from the property on Aug. 15.

A call to Rance elicited a similarly uninformed response.
"What we've done is what we said we were going to do initially, which is to try to get the parties involved together to get this thing resolved," Rance said. "I think you need to call Mrs. Lewis and ask her what's going on."

Finally, a reporter's call to Mayor Willie Brown's office apparently sparked a reaction. On Friday afternoon, a member of the City Attorney's Office set a meeting with Tompkins, Lewis' attorney.

"This has been a construction nightmare, and one which was inherited by the Brown administration. We're cleaning it up now," mayoral spokesman P.J. Johnston said.

"The primary problem was the original contractor. Secondly, it appears as though the nonprofit did not monitor the situation as much as it needed to to prevent everything from going awry. Thirdly, there were always three or four people on the family side speaking for the homeowner, and that made matters confusing."

Johnston said the city would reconfigure Lewis' loan and hire a new contractor to finish the job.

"Where the process broke down before, which was mostly because of the contractor, we're going to put things right," Johnston said. "We've got senior staff members from the Mayor's Office of Housing to make sure that happens."

Maybe they can swing hammers.

 
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