WEST PARK – Cardell Udell waited seven years for acceptance into several Broward County programs that were supposed to make repairs to her home.
But more than a year after a county contractor began fixing up the 70-year-old widow’s house, it is marred by loose fixtures, a toilet that does not flush, and mismatched floor tiles.
Gaps of sunlight glow into the home through the open edges of new, closed doors that the contractor installed.
A ceiling fan in the den dangles with loose wires hanging from it. Some of the walls are moist and stained at their base, and the air conditioner no longer works.
The new water heater has caught fire. The light bulbs blow out almost every day. Exterior plastering applied over electrical wiring is cracking, and the new windows leak.
Yet somehow, program managers insist that all of the proper permits were pulled, and all of the work passed inspection.
“This is not right,’’ Udell said. “I can’t keep the bugs or the rain out, and no one should have to live like this.’’
Amid complaints from participants in the housing rehabilitation programs offered by Broward County’s Housing and Community Development Division – and a review by the South Florida Times – the programs will undergo an audit and have received increased scrutiny from County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin.
Wasserman-Rubin, whose district includes West Park, is now calling for a residential inspector, as well as an independent contractor, to evaluate the work.
After the South Florida Times contacted Wasserman-Rubin about Udell’s concerns, the commissioner began seeking answers.
“Staff is aware of this particular matter and have been in constant contact with Mrs. Udell,” Wasserman-Rubin said in emails to the newspaper. “They are currently working with her regarding this issue and I have requested they report back to me as soon as possible.”
Evan A. Lukic, director of the County Auditor’s Office, said, “I received a call about the program and we are looking at it. We audited this agency a few years back and found a lot of problems, but I believe those problems had been resolved.”
Among the items uncovered in the 2003 final audit of the housing rehabilitation program were missing funds, mismanagement, lax oversight of projects, conflicts of interest and more.
County staffers acknowledge that there are still outstanding issues, but say they are not to blame.
“We are familiar with Mrs. Udell and have good documentation,” explained Ralph Stone, director of the Housing and Community Development Division. “She is difficult to work with, but we are trying to address her complaints.’’
The programs are supposed to assist working and lower-income families with repairs to their dilapidated homes through loans from federal and state Community Development Block Grants.
Participants are also required to live in the county, and agree to a deferred or direct re-payment loan, a grant, or some combination of these financing options. The incomes of qualified applicants must not exceed limits specified by the various funding sources.
The loans are secured with second mortgages and/or promissory notes, and have deed restrictions which stipulate that the money is due if the home is sold, or the owner dies.
Currently at issue is a $56,833 second mortgage that Udell, a 39-year resident of West Park, obtained through the program for repairs to her modest three-bedroom, two-bath home. Udell applied for the program in 1999.
“I waited seven years to get into the program but it has turned into a complete mess,” Udell said. “It is nothing but a rip-off. The work is so bad until I cry at night, and something needs to be done.’’
Udell said that after years of trying, she was finally accepted into the program in 2006, but now has regrets.
“I wish I had known, but my roof fell in and I needed the help,” she said.
The house now has a new roof, but family members say the contractor did not replace all of the rotted wood underneath it.
Since the start of the work on Udell’s house in January 2007, there have been several change orders for additional repairs and applications to obtain more funds.
Udell, whose husband, Nathaniel, died in 2001, has complained about the materials and the quality of the work. The family also wants to know the total amount of the loans she owes, and exactly how the money was spent.
Carolyn Allen, Udell’s daughter, lives around the corner from her mother in West Park.
“I think the program could be beneficial, because you have elderly people who have worked their entire lives to have a home, only for the increased cost of living to put them in a bind, so they need the help,” Allen said. “The problem is the people they have running it, and that needs to change. What they are doing is abuse and taking advantage of the elderly.’’
Udell’s case file is replete with letters between her and staff, but Allen says the county’s responses have not addressed their concerns, or provided any solutions.
“We want to know why they would spend almost $70,000 for repairs on a house this old, and in this condition, instead of building a new one,” she questioned. “They won’t answer that.’’
The 1,275-square-foot house, built in 1971, is valued at $69,440 by the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office. The land on which the house was built is valued at $126,860, according to the property appraiser’s office.
The family has asked the contractor not to send the same work crew to the house, and refuses to approve any further payments until they get answers.
“They tried to get us to say the house was damaged by Hurricane Wilma so we could get disaster funds, but we told them that would be fraud,” Allen said.
Program managers deny the allegations, and have a different account of what has transpired.
“It has been really hard for us to communicate with them, and that may be the biggest problem,’’ said Edna M. Frazier, a housing construction supervisor in the program. “The contractor has done some extra things at no cost, just to try and help her out.”
The contractor, Fort Lauderdale-based Flooker Home Improvement, could not be reached for comment.
Nonetheless, Frazier said the contractor did not install the windows, and did not perform much of the work about which Udell has complained. Frazier said the county has not been able to determine exactly who did the shoddy work.
“The windows were already there, but the contractor did replace, at his own cost, two that were leaking just to help her out,” Frazier said.
The family disputes the county’s account, and believes a cover up is at play.
“It’s all just shell game and runaround,” Allen countered. “It's their contractor, and our money they have taken.”
The county audit surrounding the Udell case could be completed within the next 45 days. Still, Udell said, she feels the county has taken advantage of her.
“When the contractors came to look at my house, two different ones told me they would not bid on any repairs, because this house should be torn down and then rebuilt,” she said. “So they used the money to cover up all the damage, which is wrong.”
Photo by Elgin Jones/Sft Staff. Carolyn Allen, left, and Cardell Udell, right, say a county contractor did shoddy work on Udell’s home.