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Coffey Park family stuck in ‘temporary occupancy’ limbo after post-Tubbs fire rebuild goes awry

The house where Miguel Hernandez lives in Coffey Park is handsome but understated: grey siding, white trim, a sturdy redwood fence along the border. What grabs the eyes of passersby is the bright splash of sunflowers in the front yard.

“That was my wife’s idea,” said Hernandez, a 28-year-old fire inspector for Sonoma County whose mood, often, does not match the cheeriness of those blooms. That’s because he and his wife, Sylvia, hold an unenviable record.

After losing that house on Tuliptree Road in the Tubbs fire of October 2017, Hernandez’s parents – who own it, but don’t live there – signed with Urban Equity Builders, a Santa Rosa-based construction company that has since been the subject of numerous complaints lodged by disgruntled customers with the Contractors State License Board, a consumer watchdog of the state’s construction industry. How well it does that job is another question, one often raised by Hernandez, who has twice filed complaints to that board against Urban Equity.

While he confirmed earlier this month that an investigation of Urban Equity is underway, CSLB spokesman Kevin Durawa provided no details about it, or when the probe will be complete.

Miguel and Sylvia and their infant son, Liam, moved back into that house on Tuliptree on December 27, 2018. Construction wasn’t finished: Urban Equity hadn’t completed landscaping and around a dozen other outstanding items. But the couple and their infant son were able to move in under a temporary occupancy permit issued by the city of Santa Rosa.

The idea behind temporary occupancy, explained Jesse Oswald, the city’s chief building official, is that residents can reoccupy a home before it’s completely finished, as long as it can be done safely.

“Say they don’t have all of their trim and flooring and countertops, but they have running water, heat, sewage disposal – all those main elements required for occupancy,” he said. A temporary occupancy permit gets them back into the house “as long as it can be done in a safe, healthy manner.”

The agreement, when such a permit is issued, is that the house will pass final inspection within 90 days.

At the end of this month, the Hernandezes will have been living in their house on Tuliptree for 2½ years – all under temporary occupancy. Of the roughly 2,500 Santa Rosa homes rebuilt, or in the rebuilding process, after the Tubbs fire, none has been in temporary occupancy as long as the Hernandez property.

“I’m just looking for closure, to moving on with our lives,” said Miguel Hernandez, who believed his house would be finalized by early 2021.

But then several mistakes – by Urban Equity, then by city inspectors – came to light.

Officials discovered that the house failed to comply with California’s energy efficiency codes. A reflective barrier was never installed in the attic. Workers had used 2x4 boards where the plans called for 2x6es, preventing them from using the correct insulation. Instead, a thinner insulation was used.

The house could not pass final inspection, Hernandez was told, until it was made more energy efficient. Fortunately, there are alternatives to tearing out those 2x4s. Hernandez and Charles Olpp, owner of Urban Equity, have been working with Santa Rosa-based Soldata Energy Consulting to find a solution that will bring the house up to code. Adding solar panels, or a solar water-heating system, are options.

Asked what went wrong, Olpp replied via text that “the design called for 2x4 framing instead of 2x6,” an error that “wasn’t caught during the plan check or framing inspection. The insulation contractor certified that the insulation was adequate. Later it was found not to be.

“Building during an emergency has its challenges,” he added. “Things get overlooked. Not just by the builders but also by the inspectors and the homeowners.”

Here, Olpp touches on a recurring theme in many accounts of rebuilt homes gone awry. Yes, the contractor screwed up – sometimes spectacularly. But the city’s inspectors then also missed it.

“A lot of people assume that as long as the work passes city inspections, they’re golden,” said Anne Barbour, vice president of the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong. “But city inspectors are a low standard. They’re doing code inspections, and if they miss something, you’re out of luck.”

As some of Olpp’s disgruntled customers have learned, the city has little recourse when asked to respond to complaints about shoddy work, incomplete work, or overbilling. The Contractors State License Board, said Oswald, “is the arm of the law with more tools than we have.”

But that watchdog board is overworked – fielding 20,000 consumer complaints a year about contractors – slow and too often toothless, its critics contend.

“Once you’re down that road, you’re screwed,” said Barbour, a Tubbs fire survivor who also serves as a local coordinator for United Policyholders, an advocacy group that helps “level the playing field,” according to its website, between disaster survivors and their insurers.

The solution: Educate people before they choose a contractor, she said. Among those in need of education are the mortgage companies lending out the money to rebuild homes. “It’s their money – they’re securing themselves,” said Barbour.

Mortgage companies would be well served to review the contracts fire survivors sign with builders, and to retain private inspectors, to add a layer of scrutiny to the inspections performed by the city, Barbour added. “And they need to have gap funding – money in an escrow account – instead of giving it to the builder whenever he wants it, because he’s holding you emotionally hostage.”

The Contractors State License Board got Olpp’s attention when it recently reopened Hernandez’s case against the builder. Soon after, Olpp sent an email to Hernandez, Oswald and the CSLB investigator that he’d “worked out a solution” to the fulfill the requirements, which would be remedied in the form of a circulation fan.

“Our plan is have this fixed and finaled within 21 days.”

The circulation fan solution was news to the consultant at Soldata Energy, who informed Hernandez that she hadn’t communicated with Olpp in over a month.

Still, Hernandez hopes to have his temporary occupancy status lifted soon – and “to moving on with our lives.”

But he’s not holding his breath.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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