'It is so hard': State program continues to leave hurricane victims out of their homes

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Thursday, September 8, 2022
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There are new details in a Troubleshooter investigation of a state program spending millions of taxpayer dollars.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There are new details in a Troubleshooter investigation of a state program spending millions of taxpayer dollars. It's money meant to help hurricane victims rebuild, but many of those victims tell us that they continue to get broken promises from the state, and it's now taking a toll on their health and mental well-being.

"I've had four different start dates, my start will come and go and nobody would come," Lavonne Merritt said.

She is talking about start dates from ReBuild NC, which is a state-run program backed by federal dollars that rebuilds low-income storm-impacted communities throughout North Carolina.

After Hurricane Matthew, the Wendell home she grew up in and lived in with her dad suffered a lot of damage from the water and wind.

"I had water coming into the front door and into through the house," Merritt added.

Her dad applied for assistance from ReBuild NC and was approved for the program. In 2020, ReBuild approved $154,000 for the reconstruction of Merritt's home. In May of 2021, ReBuild brought storage PODS to her property so she and her dad could move all of her belongings out of their home, and a document from ReBuild stated work would begin on the home, but it didn't happen.

Merritt's dad passed away waiting for ReBuild to do the work they agreed to do.

"My daddy... some of his last words to me was please get my house. Please get my house back," Merritt said.

However, now more than a year later a public records request with ReBuild NC shows the only invoice done on Merritt's home since approved in 2020 is about $1800 to remove asbestos.

"It's just like it's been wasteful money, but people are displaced for years and nothing has been done. ReBuild has nothing but left me more or less without nowhere to stay and it's going on three years," Merritt said.

She says ReBuild did have plans drawn up to demolish the home and put a two-story home on the property, but she said those plans were not approved by the county inspectors since the home did not meet code. Since Merritt moved out in the summer of 2021, she wonders how much longer she will have to wait for ReBuild to take action.

"I come over here and I look and I see my house on the verge of just falling, I want some help. I need some help. I wanted to be able to help myself, but I want to help so many others," she added

ABC11 Troubleshooter Diane Wilson continues to hear from other recipients of ReBuild NC that want help like Bernadette Freeman.

"I've had nobody to come here. Nothing but phone calls," Freeman said.

That's since 2019 when ReBuild NC approved her for more than $192,000 worth of work after Hurricane Matthew hit her Fayetteville home.

"I'm so tired now, because if you see the floor is separated," she adds.

A walk through her home and the damage was easy to see not just in one area of her home, but in several. There is visible mold that continues to spread.

She says the constant calls to ReBuild NC don't help.

"I mean if I got a contractor, what is it going to take another year or two for the contractor to contact me?" Freeman asked.

These frustrations the Johnsons know too well. In January, we first introduced you to 83-year-old James Johnson.

"It is so hard. It's unexplainable. I tried to accept it. Make myself accept it," He told ABC11.

Johnson along with his wife are also part of ReBuild NC after Hurricane Matthew flooded their home. In August of 2020, the couple packed up their whole home into storage PODS, and ReBuild NC put them in a hotel. He said ReBuild told them the repairs would take four months and they'd be back in their home by Christmas of 2020. However, two years later they're still not back in their home, so Johnson's son Hilfred got Diane Wilson involved.

"My parents don't know what to do. They sometimes just cry, just cry, they want to come home. Let's go ahead and get them in before my parents pass away. That's my goal," Hilfred said.

After Wilson started asking questions to ReBuild NC about the lack of work, there was finally progress.

"Thanks to ABC11, once that aired it started and it's been non-stop since then," Hilfred added.

Instead of remodeling Johnson's home, ReBuild demolished it, and construction started on a new home. He has watched the construction and says, "So far looking pretty good now."

It's been a long battle. To date, ReBuild has spent more than $50,000 alone just putting the Johnsons in a hotel while they wait for their home to be done. Hilfred continues to fight for his parents to make sure ReBuild follows through on their contract with them.

"I'm appreciative that they finally started moving forward, my parents will come home," Hilfred said.

When it comes to ReBuild NC, Laura Hogshead's office oversees the program and admits there have been challenges.

"You're bringing cases to us which we appreciate, we want to hear about those cases. We want to make sure no one has fallen through the cracks, that everyone is accounted for." Hogshead said.

Hogshead says supply chain issues and lack of contractors during the pandemic caused many delays for homeowners waiting for work to start on their homes.

"We are seeing a little bit of hope on that horizon. The construction is picking up now a little bit and we are getting more general contractors on our projects. But it has been hard over the last couple of years to get both the supplies and the workforce that you need to repair these homes correctly," she added.

Of the 4,000 applicants in the ReBuild NC program, just under 800 homes are completed. Despite only about 20% of the ReBuild NC homes being done, Hogshead says the state is not in jeopardy of losing the HUD funding as they have until 2026 to finish all of the projects.

"HUD gives us six to eight years to complete this process to spend this money responsibly, and so we're on track in terms of HUD; how HUD measures us, but if you're a family that's in a hotel, if you're a family that has not had a general contractor come to your house yet, you don't see that and I understand that. I've talked to a lot of families. I go to a lot of families homes. I understand that people are frustrated this long after a storm not to be back in a completed home. So we're doing everything we can to speed the program up to get more general contractors and to get more homes completed." She said.

Hogshead admits to breakdowns in communication with homeowners and just took steps to streamline the process by hiring in-house case managers.

"Those new case managers were hired this summer, they've been trained, and they are reaching out now. And so even if you've stopped picking up the phone call from your case manager that you've been working with for a couple of years, please pick up that phone call because you've got a state employee talking to you now who can have a more fulsome conversation about your case," Hogshead said.

She also added they have had hundreds of families in limbo because they received FEMA money after Hurricane Matthew and Florence.

Here are the latest numbers from ReBuild NC when it comes to the status of homes completed and homeowners still waiting for work to start or get done. As of Wednesday:

  • Steps 1-5, in progress (Intake through Award Letter) 2,063
  • Step 6: Contract and Bid Work: 1,155
  • Step 7 (In active construction): 183
  • Step 8 (Complete): 789

"Seven hundred families that are stuck in what we call a 'duplication of benefits problem'. So the federal government can only pay for something once. If you got a check from FEMA to fix your roof after Hurricane Matthew or Hurricane Florence, HUD can't pay to fix your roof and you have to come to the table with that money. Of course, that money is gone, right? We have to live. We live in the real world. Families used the money to survive and we understand that, but the federal government needs to show that you pay back towards your own recovery," Hogshead explained.

"So that's called escrow for us, and that has held up about seven hundred families from moving forward. What we've introduced in the last few weeks is a promissory note, which is a 0% interest loan, where you can pay overtime rather than bringing that check to the table because no one's able to bring that check to the table. But it is a requirement from the federal government. So, I think we found a fairly creative way around it, but it is a federal requirement. And that's why these federal funds do take six to eight years to spend is because of those kinds of requirements and those kinds of reality, and you're coming in this long after a storm and families just did what they had to do," she continued.

An NC legislative subcommittee is now investigating ReBuild NC and next week Hogshead will face questioning from that committee about the handling of these federal funds, which are taxpayer dollars, and also address the delays and obstacles homeowners continue to face that are part of ReBuild NC.

Hogshead says it's an opportunity she welcomes.

"We've been working with the committee staff since March to help them walk them through the process, help them understand the process and the pitfalls. I'm really very happy to be held accountable. This is my job and I want to be held accountable. I want to answer questions. I also want to clear up any misconceptions," she said.

When it comes to the cases ABC11 Troubleshooter brought to ReBuild's attention, Merritt says ReBuild told her that her job is out for bid.

Freeman says she recently received a call from ReBuild and they told her a contractor has been assigned to her job, but she says she will believe it when the contractor shows up to do work.

As for the Johnsons, they are watching as progress continues to be made on their new home, and are told if all goes as planned, ReBuild says Johnson's home should be done by the end of September.

ABC11 Troubleshooter will continue to stay on these cases to make sure progress is made.