TAMPA — Help may be at hand for families stuck paying mortgages on government subsidized homes blighted with toxic Chinese drywall.
Hillsborough County commissioners said Wednesday that affordable housing funds could be used to rehab the homes of four families who have lived for almost nine years with the hazardous building material that emits sulphurous fumes.
But that financial rescue package depends on a similar commitment from the Tampa Housing Authority and the City of Tampa, the two public agencies that helped the families buy the homes in Belmont Heights.
Commissioner Ken Hagan said the Housing Authority and the city had touted the Belmont Heights project as a successful public-private venture and have a responsibility to assist the families.
"I'm disappointed in the reluctance of the Housing Authority to step up and do the right thing," Hagan said. "Not only are these folks living through a financial nightmare, but their health is in jeopardy."
Commissioners did not discuss how much the county would provide but said its share would come from the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, a program used to create and preserve affordable housing. They directed county staff to meet with city and Housing Authority officials to agree on a plan by next month.
The plight of the families came to light through a Tampa Bay Times report that showed how 12 families, most living in public housing, unknowingly bought homes made with toxic Chinese drywall in 2008 through a Housing Authority home ownership program.
The drywall releases sulfurous gases that corrode copper wiring and coils and damage electrical wiring. Residents have also complained of nosebleeds, headaches and breathing difficulties.
Both the Housing Authority and Michaels Development Co., the master developer of the Belmont Heights project, said it was not their responsibility to help the residents. Banner Homes of Florida, which Michaels hired to build the 12 homes, filed for bankruptcy in 2007.
A class-action lawsuit against the drywall manufacturer is stalled in the courts.
Eight of the families eventually walked away from their homes, taking a hit to their credit rating and, in at least one case, going into personal bankruptcy.
The rest remain, stuck making hefty mortgage payments on virtually worthless homes and still facing health issues.
Edna Spencer, a social worker with the Florida Department of Children and Families, still owes $67,000 on her three-bedroom home on 24th Street. The home is valued at just $7,000.
Her air-conditioner stopped working years ago and she uses window A/C units to try and keep her house cool. Those, too, are being corroded by the fumes.
"I've had these air conditioners less than two years and they're going out on me," said Spencer, 52. "I'm happy that someone is seeing what we're going through."
Valentine Hendrix, 51, works two jobs to pay her mortgage. She has no air-conditioning and owes $79,000 on a bungalow valued at about $6,000.
"It made me feel good someone listened and believed in what we've been going through for years," she said.
Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer Leroy Moore said he will attend a meeting Friday with county staff and Thom Snelling, Tampa's director of planning and development.
One potential funding source is an owner-occupier rehab grant the city administers, though the city already has received more than 300 applications for the $1 million pot of money.
Moore said he was encouraged by the county's willingness to get involved.
"This is the public sector bailing out the private sector who bought it, built it, sold it and profited from it and left the scene," he said. "I think that is irresponsible."
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, on Wednesday also called for help for the families in a letter to Julian Castro, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rehabbing a home built with toxic drywall would cost about $70,000 per home, said Will Spates, principal of Indoor Environmental Technologies, a Clearwater company that has inspected hundreds of homes for toxic drywall.
In addition to replacing the drywall, the wiring of the home must be stripped bare to check for corrosion, Spates said. Air conditioning units may also need to be replaced since the fumes attack its copper coils.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.