Habitat program falls short for some families in Penn Hills, homeowners say
Darlene Washington has been homeless twice and moved from one shabby apartment to another throughout her life.
So when Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh offered her the opportunity to own her first home in a safe part of Penn Hills, the 60-year-old grandmother thought it was a dream come true.
"I was so excited for my first home. I'm older now so I wanted security for my granddaughter — so we can be fine and happy and safe," Washington said, resting her arms on her flower-decorated dining room table.
But everything hasn't been fine and happy at the $70,000 two-story brick home on MacFarlane Drive that she bought with $950 down and a no-interest loan about a year ago. Problems started about two months after she moved in. Habitat — which gives homeowners a free one-year warranty — had to fix a faulty shower, install a sump pump to get water out of the basement and worked on the roof to keep water from seeping into the home.
Unhappy with the work, Washington filed a complaint in December with the Consumer Protection Bureau of the state Attorney General's Office. The complaint alleged Habitat was doing patch work, rather than permanently solving her problems. The complaint surprised Habitat President and CEO Howard Slaughter.
"Habitat has consistently responded to each of Ms. Washington's inquiries in a respectful and considerate manner and remains committed to resolving any issue that is covered under the 1-year home warranty," he said in his response to the complaint.
Washington was not convinced.
She hired a waterproofing contractor to take a look at her basement. That report found blistered paint, rust, a beveled floor, mildew and green and black mold. It also recommended Washington perform a lead test.
She then hired a home inspector who found additional issues in the basement, like a gas leak and insulation or tape that might contain asbestos — a fibrous material that has been found to cause cancer. The inspection flagged the gas leak as a "serious safety concern."
Slaughter said he cannot comment on the validity of those findings.
"If we find something that has the potential to harm homeowners in any way, we try to rectify that," he said.
The home inspector's findings started to make Washington think her dream come true was turning into a nightmare. And she wasn't alone.
Washington is one of five beneficiaries of a one-time partnership between Habitat and the Allegheny Housing Authority. The agencies teamed up last year when the authority sold Habitat five run-down homes in Penn Hills for $203,000. The nonprofit spent about $35,000 apiece to fix up each house before selling them to the qualifying families.
Two other women who purchased the homes — Shyla Mitchell and Carla Colbert — have also filed complaints about Habitat with the Consumer Protection Bureau, which did not return calls for comment about the cases. The remaining two women involved in the program declined to comment.
Colbert also declined to comment, but confirmed her complaint with the agency was filed in January. She lives on Penny Drive.
Mitchell, 40, has lived in one of the refurbished houses on Universal Road with her three sons and mother since May.
"It's been one thing after another," Mitchell said. "We didn't expect this."
Among her complaints are a leaky toilet, a nonfunctional exterior spigot, termites, two mysterious holes in the front yard, loose kitchen cabinets and unfinished paint jobs.
"We were told there would be no problems at our houses for the first two to three years," Mitchell said. "Problems — and they were little at first — started right away. I want Habitat to fix everything the way it's supposed to be done — like they told me they would."
Nonprofit stands by its work
As part of the program, Mitchell, Washington, Colbert and two others who purchased homes were required to complete at least 350 hours of "sweat equity" — which included financial classes and physical labor to refurbish the properties. The homes they bought in the program with a low down payment and no interest ranged from $67,000 to $92,000.
Slaughter understands that first-time homeowners might have trouble transitioning into a new life experience, but he said Habitat shouldn't be the target of their complaints.
"We have done the work and continue to do that. And we've been judicious in our response to them ... no one can say otherwise," he said. "We help people, that's what we do. We're not doing shoddy work."
Derek Kendall-Morris, Habitat's community engagement manager, said the organization spent over $10,000 on warranty-covered repairs on the five homes in Penn Hills. While fixing problems once families move in is not uncommon, the organization has gone beyond the scope of the warranty for these homeowners, he said.
"We've invested our time and our resources on these homes," Kendall-Morris said.
Minor repairs — sticking doors or cabinet drawers, tile caulking, loose hinges, etc. — are covered under the warranty, but work must be requested within three months after moving in. The warranty also covers plumbing issues if they are reported within the first week of moving in. After the time limits, the repairs "are considered the Homeowner's responsibility," according to the warranty.
The warranty also includes a walk-through with the homeowner's construction supervisor shortly after moving in. During the walk-through, homeowners are encouraged to produce a punch list of items that need to be fixed.
Habitat officials said they have handled all the problems, even things that were not required to do under the warranty. Still, Washington and Mitchell feel as if they were promised one thing and given another.
"I'm a recent homeowner with a home that I just purchased having the same issues that I had when I was renting — what I hoped I was getting out of," Washington said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, email@example.com or via Twitter @dillonswriting.