By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
As I explained in a previous blog HabiJax Fairway Oaks homes built on top of former landfill, in 2000, an affordable housing project was constructed upon land acquired for $1, by Habitat for Humanity of Jacksonville (HabiJax), with partial funding provided thorough the Jacksonville Housing Authority.
The homes are affordable, but not free. Each homeowner is obligated to pay a 25-year mortgage, which began in 2000 when the homes were built in 17 days by 10,000 Habitat volunteers.
However, by 2006, homeowners began to notice problems with cracked foundations. Doors and windows would not open and close properly, and many homeowners had to disconnect their kitchen appliances and remove their floor coverings. It was determined that there was some soil movement, so retaining walls were built along a creek, in an attempt to stop soil from shifting. But that did not stop conditions from getting worse.
After years of complaints filed with both HabiJax and the Housing Authority, homeowners contacted Legal Aid and the local media.
A third party construction expert contacted by News 4 has inspected one of the homes. The findings are documented in a report that concludes that concrete slabs were improperly constructed. The third party inspector also found termites nesting beneath the home, due to poor compaction of the concrete at the time of construction.
Over the years, homeowners and attorneys have conducted a records review of the site. They discovered that soil tests conducted prior to and following construction confirm previous use of the site as a landfill, and the presence of toxic chemicals such as arsenic and chromium. A recent attempt to dig into the soil for testing unearthed rotting wood, crumbled concrete and other debris not far from the soil’s surface – obvious remains of the landfill.
When you walk through Fairway Oaks today there is an obvious presence of noxious odors and corrosion of some steel front doors, which experts say is caused by leaking methane gas.
Francesca Amiker of News 4 Jacksonville has done a superb job of digging into this story over the past several months. Following News 4 coverage, and at the invitation of the homeowners association, three Jacksonville City Council members – Katrina Brown, Samuel Newby, and Reginald Brown – visited the Fairway Oaks HabiJax affordable housing complex. There they saw first hand cracking slabs indicating homes sinking into unstable soil.
All three Council members were in agreement that the problems they saw appear to be due to poor construction and not lack of maintenance, as HabiJax has maintained all along.
But at a July 1st hearing, the 19-member City Council ultimately agreed with HabiJax that problems in Fairway Oaks are due to failure of homeowners to maintain their property.
So the next step was for Nathaniel Borden, President of the HOA, to get Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry out to Fairway Oaks. Curry was convinced to visit the site after homeowners staged a protest, asking constituents to vote NO on the Mayor’s proposed pension plan.
News 4 was there to film the Mayor’s tour of Fairway Oaks. Curry was visibly taken aback by what he saw. He says he now disagrees with both City Council and HabiJax. He says HabiJax needs to “get on it” and that the City needs to begin discussions on finding solutions for these homeowners, whose homes and health are at risk.
Meanwhile, Legal Aid has informed the homeowners that there is insufficient state funding to assist them. At a minimum owners would have to pay at least $100,000 to file a lawsuit, spread out over 85 households, or roughly $1,200 per household.
Several weeks ago, there had been talk of City Council withholding $840,000 from the Housing Authority fund earmarked for another proposed affordable housing project involving HabiJax. But it now appears those funds will not be withheld after all.
Fairway Oaks owners are pleading with the Mayor to be relocated to the new housing project. They say experts have concluded that the land under Fairway Oaks was never suitable for construction, that their sinking homes should be demolished, and that no future homes should be placed on the site.
Obviously, the fight for justice for these homeowners is far from over.
And, unfortunately, similar horror stories occur all over the nation. Believe it or not, it is common for local governments to sell contaminated land or plots with unsuitable soils to developers for $1, under the condition that developers will properly clean up contaminants and amend soils as necessary to provide a solid foundation for construction.
All to often, however, developers cut corners, especially if the project involves an affordable housing where funding is limited and profit margins are relatively tight.
How can this happen?
All of the stakeholders have something to gain: developers gain tax credits and make money on construction, municipal or county governments give the appearance of meeting housing needs and are able to collect tax revenue on formerly vacant land. Non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity acquire grants and positive press coverage, which then leads to increased revenue from donors.
The biggest potential losers in this political farce are the homeowners or eventual residents of poorly constructed or poorly sited housing.
But taxpayers and non-profit donors lose, too, when their money is wasted on buidling housing that falls apart after less than a decade.
Here are two recent investigative reports from News 4 Jax.
Mayor Tours homes in HabiJax Fairway Oaks Neighborhood (Video) By Francesca Amiker – July 5, 2016
(Note the corrosion on a front door, apparently caused by methane gas.)
More council members agree to deny HabiJax funding until Fairway Oaks issues fixed
3 council members have walked through Fairway Oaks after pleas from residents, By Francesca Amiker -June 29, 2016