Shoddy work

Suit alleges city repair program for elderly is inept

Five years ago, Esther Woltz's house had broken windows, unpainted walls and her front porch was falling in from rotted wood. Woltz, then 70, lived on a fixed income, couldn't afford to fix the problems, and so was the ideal candidate for a city-administered federal program that issues grants to help senior citizens make such repairs. She received approximately $32,000 and the city sent out a contractor to fix the repairs ordered by a city inspector.

But the contractor messed up.

CL wrote about Woltz's powder-covered hardwood floors and windows that were installed upside down and backward in 2001, and how the city promised to fix the problems. Five years later, Woltz is still waiting for some of the repairs. "The people who ran the home repair unit were incompetent," says Gary Leshaw, Woltz's former attorney. "They couldn't do anything right."

According to lawsuits filed last week in Fulton County Superior Court by Atlanta Legal Aid on behalf of six elderly homeowners, including Woltz, the city has misused federal funds and breached contracts with each homeowner by failing to perform adequate repairs.

The program works like this: Each year, the city receives federal funds to repair approximately 50 low-income elderly or disabled homeowners' houses that violate the housing code. The city then decides what repairs need to be fixed and chooses a contractor — usually the one who bids the lowest — from the same pool of three to four contractors. After the repairs are made, a city housing inspector approves the work and the contractor is paid.

Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Karen Miniex says the contractors selected by the city have performed poor — even dangerous — work. "These homeowners are living in crude conditions while contractors get paid," Miniex says. "We don't understand how such shoddy work could be approved."

In one case, a woman had to relieve herself in a kitchen pot for a week after a contractor botched a toilet repair. In another, according to Miniex, a wheelchair-bound man was trapped in his home for a year because the ramp built by contractors was too steep to safely roll down and stopped in the middle of his yard rather than reaching the sidewalk. "These problems shouldn't be cropping up again," says Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Bill Brennan. "The city should know how to manage the program, particularly because of what happened in the past."

This isn't the first time Atlanta Legal Aid has sued the city about problems with the program. Twenty years ago, the organization filed suit on behalf of 20 citizens who experienced similar problems. Then-City Councilman Bill Campbell called for a city investigation of corruption in the program; ironically, two city employees were fired for receiving kickbacks from contractors.

City attorney Linda DiSantis says the city is conducting an internal investigation of the program's mismanagement. "It's unfortunate that [Atlanta Legal Aid] felt the need to resort to a lawsuit," DiSantis says. "We were addressing their issues and working closely with them to fix the problems."

But it shouldn't take five years. "I've been waiting so long," Woltz says. "I just want my house fixed."

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