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Gov. Cooper orders NCORR to expedite Hurricane Matthew recovery, but homeowners’ woes continue

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Thad Artis and his wife lived in this home for 13 years before Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016.. (Google Streetview)

 

T had Artis, Jr. is living alone in limbo.

Artis is entering his second summer in a Goldsboro motel, waiting to move into his new modular home in Pikeville. But his contractor, Rescue Construction, has made no progress on the home.  “A motel is not a home,” Artis said. “It’s just a place to go when you’re on vacation.”

Artis is among thousands of homeowners enrolled in the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s Hurricane Matthew disaster recovery program. He is also among hundreds and hundreds still displaced after the historic 2016 storm.

Worse yet, his wife suffered a stroke and is paralyzed on one side of her body. “She can’t walk. She can’t see,”Artis said.

He asked motel management to allow a hospital bed and a lift to be placed in their room so the couple could stay together and she could receive therapy with him by her side.

The management denied his request. 

Artis lives in the motel, but had to place his wife in a long-term care facility. “And they’re calling me about a bill,” Artis said. 

It’s wrong,” Artis said of the delays. “We’re suffering.”

“At home you’re relaxed,” he went on. “I’m not relaxed. A home is a place of love and compassion. You can rest better. You’re sure. You feel good. You can sleep.”

As a result of Policy Watch’s earlier reporting, [2] Gov. Roy Cooper “has ordered the NC Office of Recovery and Resilience and the Department of Public Safety to undergo a thorough review of all areas where the process can be streamlined and customer service improved,” said Jordan Monaghan, the governor’s press secretary, in an email. “They have identified a robust plan of action to get people back into their homes faster. The governor expects that NCORR will focus on delivering results faster while staying in close touch with those being assisted.”

(Scroll down for the list of program changes.)

However, for most displaced homeowners these directives have yet to get them back into their houses. Here are the stories of several more homeowners.

Theresa Hamilton turned 90 years old on June 5, living in a motel. Her son, who works in construction, also spoke about the extensive wait.

http://ncpolicywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Hamilton-Interview.mp3 [3]

Joy and Terrance Dillahunt did get back into their Goldsboro home in 2020 after couch surfing for six months. They described the shoddy quality of work that was done on their home. Their contractor was Persons Service Company. It had received 222 complaints about workmanship, according to state records.

http://ncpolicywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Dillahunt_interview.mp3 [4]

Ms. Smith has been displaced for more than a year and still lives in a motel.

http://ncpolicywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Ms.Smith_interview.mp3 [5]

NCORR’s changes to the Hurricane Matthew disaster recovery housing program

      1. Adopting the Decent, Safe, and Sanitary building standard: “NCORR has been renovating homes to the Housing Quality Standard, which means projects take longer because contractors must repair any and all problems discovered in the home, including those that are not storm-related. NCORR will adopt the Decent Safe and Sanitary standard, ensuring that storm damage is repaired and up to code, but will not focus on non-storm damage.”

Why this is important: This applies only to homes that are being repaired, not new construction.
Homeowners who already have a grant agreement with NCORR will still have their repairs done to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Quality Standard, [6] according to an NCORR spokesperson. New enrollees, though, will be asked to sign an agreement without a specification of which standard will be applied.

This new criteria could speed up home repairs, but several contractors cautioned that the Decent, Safe, and Sanitary standard is not as rigorous as the Housing Quality Standard. For example, drywall could be replaced — but not painted.

A checklist provided by NCORR [7] contains 18 criteria for the Decent, Safe, and Sanitary Standard. The Housing Quality Standard checklist has some overlap, but is much more extensive.

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Sam Cockrell of Lucama recorded the water line on his house after Hurricane Matthew. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

      2. Customer service brought in-house: Instead of continuing to use contractors for case management, NCORR is now bringing that function within state government. “This will reduce turnover, enhance information sharing, and improve the ability for survivors to get timely answers to questions,” an NCORR spokesperson said via email.

Why this is important: Dozens of homeowners have told Policy Watch that they had several case managers in just a few months. There was enormous turnover and little continuity, the homeowners said. Case managers requested nothing be sent via email, but that communications should be by phone. Without a paper trail, homeowners often had to repeat steps in the process. In many cases, homeowners said, they couldn’t even reach their case managers.

While these communication failures occurred with contractors, an NCORR employee was in originally in charge of applicant services: CJ Jordan, who  has since transferred to the NC Department of Environmental Quality, where he oversees more than a billion dollars in federal infrastructure funding related to water, sewer and storm water.

    3. Streamlining program requirements: “Several changes to documentation have already been put into place and applicants should be able to move through the process more quickly as a result of these changes,” according to NCORR.

Why this is important: Many homeowners have complained about the extensive and redundant paperwork required to enter the program. In some cases, applicants said they were given papers to sign that were missing key information; some declined to sign because they didn’t know what they were agreeing to.

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James Cade has been living in a Robeson County motel for more than a year while his and his wife’s home is being repaired. Months go by without any work being done. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

    4. Recruiting and working with smaller contractors: NCORR said it “has worked mostly with large general contractors that are equipped to undertake a high number of construction projects at the same time. The program will now focus on working with smaller, more regionally based contractors who will be able to complete fewer projects but on a shorter timeline.”

Why this is important: There are several small contractors already work in the program, including Rescue Construction Solutions, Fam-Lock and RHD. Several multi-state contractors told Policy Watch that the bid packages — the number of homes — were too large and cumbersome, even for major companies. Unless the number of homes per contractor decreases, it will be difficult to quickly complete the work.

At least a half dozen contractors also said that Ivan Duncan, NCORR’s chief program delivery officer, was verbally abusive and made arbitrary policy decisions, effectively driving them out of the program.

Contractors and homeowners also said there were glitches in “change orders.” These changes occur when a contractor discovers previously known issues in a home, such as asbestos, lead or structural problems. These change orders must be approved by NCORR before the work can be done. Some homeowners have waited for months for these orders to be okayed or denied — ultimately the responsibility of Ivan Duncan.

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(Photo: LinkedIn)

    5. Expanding the pool of general contractors: “NCORR will begin posting all construction projects to the state’s Interactive Procurement System website, rather than posting to the smaller pre-qualified contractor list that was previously used. This will open up bidding to a much larger pool of potential contractors,” according to a spokesperson.

Why this is important: The smaller pre-qualified contractor list contained roughly a dozen companies that had to fill out paperwork and prove they were financially capable of completing the jobs. However, a Department of Public Safety spokesman told Policy Watch that no background checks were conducted to verify the information potential contractors provided was accurate.

Rescue Construction Solutions, for example, claimed it had not been the subject of civil litigation within three years. That was not true.

Expanding the pool of general contractors could help alleviate the shortage, but without adequate oversight, the program could be vulnerable to abuse.

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A home in Goldsboro, damaged by Hurricane Matthew, has been broken into and open to the weather for several years. The homeowner has received a mobile storage unit for his belongings, but no other assistance. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

    6. Purchasing new mobile homes from lots, as well as manufacturers: “NCORR will change its current method of procuring mobile homes for applicants to expedite delivery. Previously, manufacturers were building mobile homes based on specific plans to ensure that all units purchased were the same in terms of features and amenities. Going forward, purchasing pre-built mobile homes from lots and manufacturers will mean faster delivery, while still meeting HUD standards.”

Why this is important: Under the previous arrangement, NCORR did not purchase mobile homes or modulars from dealer lots. Instead, homeowners could choose from dozens of floor plans; the homes then had to be built from scratch based on those specifications, creating a backlog of hundreds of homes.

    7. Hiring/contracting inspectors to ensure accurate scopes of work: “Project scopes of work were often done immediately after a storm and no longer reflect the state of a damaged home at this point. More inspectors will provide accurate scopes of work before bidding the contract out, which will reduce project change orders and construction delays,” according to NCORR.

Why this is important: Mold, mildew, broken windows, leaky roofs. Because so many homes have been left unfinished — and for so long, upward of two years, in some cases — they have further degraded because of the weather. Construction delays have not only broadened the scope of repairs, but have increased the cost of repairs.

Read Policy Watch’s full investigative series here [2].