Home Improvement? 

Federal government report criticizes the city’s Housing and Rehabilitation Program.

Sewage backed up into one homeowner's bathtub for more than a month. The only shower in another home didn't work for more than eight months.

These were problems that were eventually fixed through the Memphis Housing and Rehabilitation Program (HARP). But the federal government said delays in the resolutions put an undue and sometimes unsafe burden on homeowners, and that city officials who ran the now-shuttered program were to blame.

That's all in a new report issued late last week from the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which criticized the city's management of the program and called it "not effective."

"Specifically, inspectors approved payments for home repairs that did not meet rehabilitation standards or were not properly repaired as contracted," the report said. "These conditions occurred because the city did not properly write its rehabilitation specifications for contractors and perform inspections as required."

As an example of the "poorly written" specifications, the report said rules for heating and cooling systems mandated only that HVAC units be "sized to efficiently heat and cool the structure." But the federal investigators found 14 homes without correctly sized units, including one with a running air conditioner that cooled the home to only 95 degrees on a 100-degree day.

Robert Lipscomb is the city's director of Housing and Community Development, and the HARP program fell under the umbrella of his office. He said federal funding for the program was reduced and so its staff and its abilities were reduced. Also, no new inspectors were hired after his decision to close the program. These factors led to the lag in inspections.

According to the report, a project at one home took 56 weeks to complete. It was supposed to be inspected 168 times, according to federal law, but was only inspected six times. Another project was never inspected though the law called for 54 inspections.

Federal investigators sampled 65 of 153 home rehabilitation projects managed by HARP in Memphis from 2010 to 2012. Of those 65 sampled, 61 "had instances of incomplete home repairs or poor workmanship," the report said. The 65 projects cost $1.6 million in federal funds and had a total of 323 repair violations. The 153 projects cost taxpayers a total of $3.9 million.

The report includes pictures of shoddy work done by contractors and approved by HARP inspectors. Duct tape holds up the cover of a breaker box in one home. A living room doorframe was replaced by a termite-infested doorframe in another home.

But Lipscomb called everything in the report "old news" and said that his office found the problems in the HARP program in 2012, quickly suspended the program, and alerted HUD to the issues.

"I don't know what more we could do," Lipscomb said. "We found the problem. We reported the problem and then we moved on."

He admitted "a breakdown in internal operations" led to the program's severe mismanagement. Also to blame were several "unscrupulous" contractors. That's why, Lipscomb said, he reprimanded and fired many staffers or let them resign and eliminated many contractors from the program.

City officials are now working with the national Enterprise Foundation, the Memphis-based Plough Foundation, and MLGW to find a non-profit organization to run the HARP program.

"So, out of this bad thing has come a good thing," Lipscomb said, "because we're working with other entities to come up with a better program."

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