County approves rescue plan for Belmont Heights families stuck with toxic drywall

TAMPA — For close to nine years, four families who bought government subsidized homes in Tampa endured a financial disaster, their dream homes blighted by Chinese drywall.

Now, finally, government is going to make it right.

Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a joint plan with the city of Tampa and the Tampa Housing Authority to rehabilitate four homes in Belmont Heights.

The county will provide roughly $205,000 toward the cost of replacing the drywall, damaged electrical wiring and other repairs. The bulk of the money will come from a state affordable housing grant.

The city of Tampa expects to chip in, too, with up to $200,000 coming from a federal grant for low-income homeowners to rehab their residences. The Tampa Housing Authority will provide temporary accommodations for the four families.

“These are working families who have done everything the right way in order to achieve the American dream and yet the system has failed them,” said Commissioner Ken Hagan. “Well, today, the system is righting this wrong.”

The plight of the residents came to light through a Tampa Bay Times report that detailed how 12 families, most living in public housing, unknowingly bought homes made with toxic drywall in 2008 through a Housing Authority home ownership program that included down payment assistance from Tampa.

LEFT HIGH AND DRY: LITTLE HELP FOR FAMILIES WITH CHINESE DRYWALL

The drywall released sulfurous gases that corroded copper wiring and coils and damaged electrical wiring. Residents complained of nosebleeds, headaches and breathing difficulties.

Eight of the 12 families walked away from their homes, which went into foreclosure. The remaining families are still making hefty mortgage payments on virtually worthless homes.

After so much time, Edna Spencer said it is still difficult to accept that help may finally be on the way.

A social worker with the Florida Department of Children and Families, Spencer still owes $67,000 on her three-bedroom home on 24th Street. In its current condition, it is valued at just $7,000.

Over the past few days, Hillsborough social services staff met with her and the other families to discuss their situation and advise them of their options. They were told they may need to live in a long-term stay hotel for two months while the Housing Authority looks for a apartment to house them until the homes are repaired, which could take up to six months.

“I asked them two times, ‘Is this real?’ I was so overwhelmed at what they said to me,” said Spencer, 52. “My heart is just booming right now; I’m so excited.”

When the drywall problem came to light, both the Housing Authority and Michaels Development Co., the master developer of the Belmont Heights project, said it was not their responsibility to repair the homes. Banner Homes of Florida, the builder hired by Michaels, filed for bankruptcy in 2007.

A class-action lawsuit against the state-owned Chinese drywall manufacturer is stalled in federal court, with the Chinese government refusing to cooperate.

Hillsborough County government was not involved in the home ownership program but stepped in earlier this month at the request of Hagan. The commissioners’ vote authorizes county staff to draft an interlocal agreement with the city and Housing Authority.

County officials are asking companies to step up and donate materials and labor toward the project. In addition to building supplies, the homes will need new appliances, air-conditioning units and flooring, said Eric Johnson, assistant county administrator.

In recent weeks, the Housing Authority has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pressure Michaels to contribute toward the remediation, said Leroy Moore, the authority’s chief operating officer.

Margareth Morisett, who lives in a four-bedroom house on East 31st Avenue said she welcomes the help but is still concerned about her family’s health.

Until she moved out, her daughter frequently suffered headaches.

Her youngest son has battled allergies and runny eyes while Morisett has been to the emergency room many times because of breathing difficulties.

“I’m happy they’re doing something but I still have a lot of questions,” she said. “Somewhere down they road we might have to pay the consequences of living here for almost 10 years.”

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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