The house where Miguel Hernandez lives in Coffey Park is beautiful but understated: gray siding, white woodwork, a solid redwood fence along the border. What catches the eyes of passers-by is the bright splash of sunflowers in the front yard.
“It was my wife’s idea,” said Hernandez, a 28-year-old fire inspector for Sonoma County whose mood often doesn’t match the cheerfulness of these flowers. That’s because he and his wife, Sylvia, hold an unenviable record.
After losing this home on Tuliptree Road in the Tubbs fire in October 2017, Hernandez’s parents – who own it but don’t live there – signed with Urban Equity Builders, a Santa-based construction company. Rosa who has since been the subject of numerous complaints from disgruntled customers to the Contractors State License Board, a consumer watchdog for the state’s construction industry. How well it does that job is another question, often raised by Hernandez, who has twice filed complaints with this board against Urban Equity.
While he confirmed earlier this month that an investigation into Urban Equity was underway, CSLB spokesperson Kevin Durawa did not provide any details about it, or when the investigation will be completed. .
Miguel and Sylvia and their toddler son Liam returned to this Tuliptree home on December 27, 2018. Construction was not complete: Urban Equity had not completed the landscaping and a dozen other items. outstanding. But the couple and their baby were able to move in thanks to a temporary occupancy permit issued by the city of Santa Rosa.
The idea behind the temporary occupation, explained Jesse Oswald, the city’s building manager, is that residents can reoccupy a house before it is completely finished, as long as it can be done safely.
“Say they don’t have all of their trim, flooring and countertops, but they have running water, heating, sewage disposal – all of those major items required for occupancy. “, did he declare. A temporary occupancy permit reinstates them in the house “as long as it can be done in a safe and healthy manner”.
The agreement, when such a permit is issued, is that the house will pass the final inspection within 90 days.
At the end of this month, the Hernandez will be living in their Tuliptree home for two and a half years – all in temporary occupation. Of the 2,500 or so houses in Santa Rosa that were rebuilt or being rebuilt after the Tubbs fire, none have been temporarily occupied as long as the Hernandez property.
“I’m just looking for the closure, to continue our life,” said Miguel Hernandez, who believed his house would be finalized by early 2021.
But, then, several errors – on the part of Urban Equity, then the city inspectors – appeared.
Officials discovered that the house did not meet California energy efficiency codes. A reflective barrier has never been installed in the attic. Workers had used 2×4 panels where plans called for 2x6s, preventing them from using the right insulation. Instead, thinner insulation was used.
The house could not pass the final inspection, Hernandez was told, until it was made more energy efficient. Fortunately, there are alternatives to snatch those 2x4s. Hernandez and Charles Olpp, owner of Urban Equity, worked with Santa Rosa-based Soldata Energy Consulting to find a solution that will bring the home up to standard. Adding solar panels or a solar water heater system are options.
When asked what was wrong, Olpp replied via text message that “the design called for a 2×4 frame instead of 2×6”, an error which “was not detected when checking the plan or inspection of the frame Insulation contractor certified that the insulation was adequate Later it was found not to be.
“Building during an emergency has its challenges,” he added. “Things are neglected. Not just by builders, but also by inspectors and owners.
Here, Olpp tackles a recurring theme in many accounts of rebuilt houses gone wrong. Yes, the entrepreneur screwed up – sometimes dramatically. But the city inspectors then also missed it.
“A lot of people assume that as long as the job passes city inspections, they’re golden,” said Anne Barbour, vice president of the Coffey Strong neighborhood support group. “But the city inspectors are low. They do code inspections, and if they miss something, you’re out of luck.
As some of Olpp’s disgruntled customers have learned, the city has little recourse when asked to respond to complaints about shoddy work, incomplete work or overcharging. The Contractors State License Board, Oswald said, “is the arm of the law with more tools than we have.”
But this oversight committee is overworked – receiving 20,000 consumer complaints a year against entrepreneurs – slow and too often toothless, say critics.
“Once you’re down that road you’re screwed,” said Barbour, a Tubbs fire survivor who also serves as the local coordinator for United Policyholders, an advocacy group that helps “level the playing field. “, according to its website, between the victims and their insurers.
The solution: educate people before they choose an entrepreneur, she says. Among those in need of education are mortgage companies that lend money to rebuild homes. “It’s their money – they’re protecting themselves,” Barbour said.
Mortgage companies would be well served to review the contracts that fire survivors sign with builders and to retain the services of private inspectors, to add a layer of control to inspections carried out by the city, Barbour added. “And they need additional funding – money in an escrow account – instead of giving it to the builder when they want it because they are holding you emotionally hostage.”
The Contractors State License Board caught Olpp’s attention when it recently reopened Hernandez’s case against the builder. Shortly thereafter, Olpp emailed Hernandez, Oswald and the CSLB investigator to tell them that he had “worked out a solution” to meet the requirements, which would be remedied in the form of a blower. circulation.
“Our plan is to have this sorted out and finalized within 21 days.”
The circulation fan solution was news to the Soldata Energy consultant, who informed Hernandez that she had not contacted Olpp for over a month.
Still, Hernandez is hoping his temporary occupancy status will soon be lifted – and “to get on with our lives.”
But he doesn’t hold his breath.
You can contact editor Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or [email protected] or on Twitter @ ausmurph88.