Caught in red tape

Offbeat home, outlandish rehab

A MAN’S HOME IS HIS CHURCH<br>David Meraz wants to take good care of this historic church that doubles as his home, and has done a lot of work himself. But when he signed up for the city’s home-rehab program, he ran into nothing but trouble.

David Meraz wants to take good care of this historic church that doubles as his home, and has done a lot of work himself. But when he signed up for the city’s home-rehab program, he ran into nothing but trouble.

Photo By Robert Speer

David Meraz lives in a strange house—so strange, in fact, that it’s been featured in a Home and Garden network show about people who live in unusual houses.

Lately, though, it’s gone beyond strange for Meraz; it’s become a nightmare.

The home is a former church—steeple and all—located at the corner of 12th and Locust streets in Chico. Built in 1908 by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it served as a place of worship for more than 60 years before being decommissioned and converted into a rental residence.

Meraz, who came to Chico in 1975, has lived in the house since 1986 and owned it since 2003. “It’s an odd duck, so it fits with who I am,” he said.

Like all old rental buildings, it needs work. In 2003, Meraz applied for a housing rehabilitation loan through the city of Chico. These loans, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are designed to help income-eligible homeowners upgrade their properties, as a city brochure reads, “by providing affordable loans, project planning assistance, and the services of a licensed contractor.”

As it turned out, the city was not administering the program, contracting that job out to the Consolidated Area Housing Authority of Sutter County. The three bidders on Meraz’s project were all from Yuba County. One came in too high, and the lowest bidder opted out. That left Meraz with little choice but to go with the middle bidder, R. V. Tomlinson Construction, of Sutter. The Housing Authority assured him Tomlinson was reputable, he said, but did not tell him he had the right to solicit additional bids.

Work was supposed to begin in April 2005 but didn’t get started until that August. Tomlinson had agreed to credit Meraz for any work he did, so Meraz took out an old wall air-conditioning duct that was letting in hot air and repaired the wall. But Tomlinson later agreed to credit him only $200, not the full $987 cost in the bid, Meraz charged.

It went downhill from there.

One example: Meraz said Tomlinson invited him to help with removing old shingle siding from the building, saying it would be replaced with new siding and that he would get approval from the Housing Authority to shift the funding. Meraz spent much of a weekend up a ladder, pulling shingles off the building. That Monday he called the Housing Authority and was told he shouldn’t be doing the work, he wouldn’t be reimbursed for it and in fact would be charged for the replacement siding.

The problems piled up. Meraz was never given a work schedule. Appointments were cancelled without notice; days and weeks went by without work being done. The contractor brought in scaffolding to replace the roof, but took it down before working on the shingle siding. For that he used ladders, but they were too short to reach the building’s upper levels. When painters showed up, Meraz sent them home, saying the siding wasn’t ready to be painted.

Meraz tried to get the Housing Authority to exert more supervision over Tomlinson—to no avail, he said. He asked for copies of Tomlinson’s invoices but never got them. In response, he refused to sign off on the third of four progress payments to Tomlinson. Tomlinson then filed for arbitration.

According to an Aug. 9, 2006, statement from Edward Baker, executive director of the Housing Authority, a significant amount of the repair work has been completed, including 75 percent of the shingle siding, 100 percent of the roof and gutters, 100 percent of interior repairs to the entry, and lead abatement for painting. The total dollar value of the completed work is $58,318.81, and Tomlinson has been paid $35,277.46, leaving him owed $23,041.35.

Meraz questions many of those costs. In October 2006 he hired Root Construction Consultants to inspect the home. Root’s report notes that shingle replacement was “not properly executed” and only 50 percent completed, the new roof “does not appear to be in conformance with the industry’s standard of care,” some of its flashing “was poorly installed” and the job isn’t complete.

In conclusion, Root noted that “the work performed [did] not reflect a contractor with pride of workmanship,” was “not up to the ‘Standard of Care’ for the construction trades,” had created “additional work and problems” and was not finished.

Conceivably the disagreements could be worked out in arbitration, and the city offered to pay half of Meraz’s expenses, up to $2,500. Meraz hired attorney Kevin Sweeney, but the money ran out well before the matter got to arbitration, and Meraz, who owns a small and struggling cutting-board business, couldn’t afford to continue.

Earlier this year Meraz asked the city to terminate his loan agreement. On June 29, Sherry Morgado, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services department, wrote to him, noting that the City Council was prepared to approve his request, on condition he pay off his loan balance of $34,154.40 within 90 days and bring the house fully up to code.

The city did offer to leave the loan open for 30 days, however, and assist him in finding a new contractor to finish the work.

In a response dated July 6, Meraz asked for verification that the money he owed actually had been spent on his house. He sought invoices and receipts, actual labor costs, building-permit and surety-bond costs, and so forth, as required by HUD. He sent a follow-up letter on July 17.

He still has not received the documents.

Morgado would not comment on the case, citing that it was in “potential litigation.” She did state that the city no longer contracts with the Sutter County Housing Authority, but she would not comment on the city’s assessment of the agency’s performance, again citing “potential litigation.”

Baker, the Housing Authority director, was also hesitant to comment. He said he hoped Meraz and Tomlinson could work out their differences, but it was between them, and his agency wasn’t immediately involved.

A phone message was left at Tomlinson’s office Tuesday morning (Sept. 11). His secretary confirmed he was working that day, but he didn’t return the CN&R’s call.

For his part, Meraz is indeed contemplating a lawsuit—though he’d have to do it himself because he can’t afford an attorney. He’s facing another winter without heat and blames the city, which he holds responsible for the program and believes has let him down.

“They talk about providing exceptional customer service,” he said. “I guess I’m the exception.”