Nightmare On 19th Street

A new homeowner grapples with the city to get her "affordable" home repaired.

The colorful facades on homes along West 19th Street in downtown's barrio can't hide their construction problems, which are as plain as black and white. Intended to be "affordable," one owner on the street says her house is costing her dearly.

When Nicole Gonzales purchased her home over two years ago, she never expected the headaches she's experienced. What is even worse, she says, is the response she has received from the City of Tucson.

"I noticed water coming in the back door with the first rain after I moved in," first-time homebuyer Gonzales laments. "Water also puddled in the back yard like a swimming pool, and even came in the front door when it rained hard."

In addition to the drainage problems, the concrete floor of the house has long ugly cracks, which were visible when Gonzales purchased the home and have widened ever since. These cracks resemble a huge scar running across the home's great room, and Gonzales fears they will probably impact her property value.

To address the problems, a few months after buying the house, Gonzales turned to the city's Community Services Department for assistance, since it was one of their programs which had built the home. They offered some possible solutions, including installing rock rip-rap near the rear door and re-grading the back yard to serve as a water retention area. At the same time, the department admitted the water problem was caused by a "construction deficiency."

Gonzales adamantly refused these initial ideas, labeling them a "Band-Aid approach" and unacceptable. The city's proposal, she says, did "little to resolve the real issue of a house lower than the surrounding ground due to a poorly designed site plan."

Bill Milliron of the Community Services Department disputes that assertion. He says an engineering report shows the home was built to proper specifications, was constructed as called for on the site plan, and the city couldn't hold the contractor accountable for the drainage problems.

On top of her aggravation with the city, Gonzales expresses this opinion of her "affordable" house: "It has become very expensive purchasing this home ... I have taken time off from work, invested money, and have made numerous phone calls to get repairs made on this new home."

In response, Milliron believes Gonzales is no different than any other new homebuyer who has problems. "She's probably had more recourse with the city involved," he says, "and we've spent a lot of extra money [on her house]."

Frustrated by her initial treatment, Gonzales appealed directly to the City Council for help. In response, the Community Services Department proposed a four-point program to address the issues, which after negotiations resulted in a six-part plan being agreed to in October of last year.

Since then the city has altered the grade around the rear door, installed gutters and drain pipes on Gonzales' and her neighbor's homes and built a low concrete curb between the two units to cut down on drainage flow. The city has also erected a masonry wall to separate the two lots in hopes of diminishing water ponding in Gonzales' rear yard.

Despite these efforts, water is still coming in the back door. It appears to a layman the house was simply built too low on the lot, and some flooding seems inevitable with every rain.

As for the floor, the cracks are widening even though the city had the concrete tested and tried to seal some of the gaps. Milliron says the cracks are the result of the slab shrinking, but other possible causes may be the use of poor quality concrete or the soil under the house not being compacted properly.

Gonzales remains frustrated, saying the city is giving her only lip service and a run-around in fixing her home's problems, and being patronizing while doing it. "It's really sad," she says, "and they make it really hard."

While admitting he wasn't personally involved with this case, Milliron replies that the department's staff has always been professional and courteous in his experience.

The young first-time homebuyer, who grew up only a few blocks away, also has other concerns about her house. Since she has an infant son, she worries about mold collecting inside the home because of the water leaks.

As for the structural problems, Gonzales claims the city has yet to fulfill the agreement it signed over 13 months ago. The back yard hasn't been re-graded, she says, and she hasn't heard from anyone with the city since April. Plus, she adds that the Community Services Department never even checked to see if the changes which were made actually worked to reduce the flooding problem.

For his part, Milliron asserts the back yard was graded early in the year and he thought the drainage problems had been remedied. He says his department hasn't been contacted by Gonzales in eight months.

After more than two years of frustration, Nicole Gonzales' advice to other potential home buyers of "affordable" homes offered by the City of Tucson isn't encouraging. "Really look into who the contractor was and review the drainage and layout plans [for the lot]," she says. "Then get an architect and engineer out there to look at the home before buying."

"I didn't buy a new home to make repairs to it," she says, exasperated. "I should be making improvements to it instead."