Group of fire survivors in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park accuse contractor of errors, incomplete work

In a rare move, Santa Rosa officials last month revoked one of 34 building permits Urban Equity Builders held after the city determined the contractor abandoned a job.|

Kevin Johnson has a few kind things to say about Urban Equity Builders.

“Some aspects of my home are really nice,” said Johnson, a 53-year-old mechanical technician who chose the Santa Rosa contractor to rebuild the house he lost in Coffey Park in the October 2017 Tubbs fire. “The paint's nice. The flooring's nice. The trim work on the inside is great.”

Those compliments were quickly overshadowed in conversation with Johnson, who recited a range of mistakes he claimed Urban Equity made on his house, some of which he included in written complaints to the state agency that licenses and monitors contractors.

His gutters, after being installed incorrectly, needed to be torn out and replaced three times. A pipe to carry natural gas from the main line to Johnson's house was too narrow to supply all his appliances. A major leak in the garage ceiling required workers to tear out a second-floor deck. A plumber's failure to install a section of pipe under an upstairs shower flooded the pantry below. Some 80% of the windows were framed incorrectly and additional framing errors on the roof caused the gutters on the back of the house to “look like a frickin' noodle,” he said.

Johnson is among a group of disgruntled Urban Equity customers who spoke to The Press Democrat about what they called the builder's incomplete and at times improper construction work. A San Francisco attorney representing the contractor said Wednesday, “We deny any allegations of wrongdoing.”

All lost their houses in Coffey Park, where 1,422 homes were destroyed in the Tubbs inferno. The northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, most affected by the historic fire, has rallied remarkably. Some 97% of the houses are set for rebuilding to begin, under construction or have been completed. But that's cold comfort to residents whose homes have been delayed, and in some cases, poorly constructed, they contend in interviews and in the written complaints.

They've been victimized a second time, they say, by Santa Rosa's building permit process, which makes it nearly impossible to take back a permit from a builder - even when a contractor has missed work deadlines or made mistakes.

But in a rare move, and a victory for one of the homeowners interviewed for this story, Santa Rosa officials last month revoked one of 34 building permits Urban Equity held after the city determined the contractor abandoned the job. Eighteen of those permits remain in “issued” status, meaning Urban Equity can start construction, said Jesse Oswald, the city's chief building official. Eight are for houses that have passed final inspection. Five are homes in temporary homeowner occupancy, and one permit has been withdrawn.

The permit the city took from Urban Equity belongs to Marybeth Adkins, one of three of the company's customers in Coffey Park who detailed, in interviews and complaints to local and state officials, frustrating experiences with the contractor over apparent sloppy work and billing disagreements. More customers with similar experiences were interviewed by The Press Democrat, but declined to speak publicly for fear of reprisal.

Seeking help

Unhappy Urban Equity clients have sought help from a range of local and state government officials, including the office of state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, the city building department and the state agency regulating contractors.

McGuire has been working on reforms to protect homeowners who are rebuilding. He will be advancing related legislation later in the year, his spokeswoman said.

“Offhand, I can recall seven households I've spoken to” about Urban Equity, said Legal Aid attorney Kendall Jarvis, who added she was “informed of many more.”

In August, Adkins called the District Attorney's Office, asking how she might bring charges against her contractor. The office referred her to the Contractors State License Board, which serves as a consumer watchdog by regulating the state's construction industry.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch said her office typically waits for the state agency to investigate homeowner complaints about builders before prosecutors decide whether to pursue its own investigation and bring charges. In an interview, Ravitch reminded consumers shopping for homebuilders that they need to perform due diligence and “be advocates for themselves.”

Adkins and Johnson both filed complaints against Urban Equity with the contractors license board. Those complaints remain under investigation.

Customer complaints

Urban Equity Builders was founded in 2014 by Charles Olpp. He took on a large number of home rebuilding projects after the North Bay fires two years ago.

“Like every contractor,” Olpp wrote via text to a reporter, “we have had a small fraction of customers complain about our work or the speed of progress.”

The company has been doing its best, he said, “to deliver excellent value as quickly as we can, given that demand exceeds supply and our crew and subcontractors are spread thin.”

Critics of Urban Equity, he implied in a follow-up text, are missing the bigger picture: “I'm the youngest contractor in Sonoma County. … My achievements over the last 2 years are pretty astonishing. We haven't profited much due to our large hearts. But we don't regret any of it.”

Despite the extroverted personality he cultivates on social media - Olpp posts numerous pictures of himself flexing his biceps on his Instagram account,, for example - he declined more than a dozen requests via email, text message and phone over a weeklong period to be interviewed for this story.

Olpp's San Francisco attorney, Shauna Correia, on Wednesday declined to comment on the Coffey Park residents' allegations against Urban Equity. The contractor is “actively trying to resolve” its dispute with Adkins, and Johnson has “an open complaint” against the builder's insurance company which the parties also are trying to settle, Correia said.

Adkins liked everything about Urban Equity at first blush. Olpp, she recalled, “talked about how he was from Santa Rosa, and grew up here, and it was OK if he lost some money on my build because he'd make it up on somebody else's. And he just wanted to get people back in their homes.”

She was surprised in May 2019 to get an invoice from Urban Equity for $73,175.

Adkins knew the builder hadn't done any work on the doors or windows of her property on Waring Court in Coffey Park.

“They never ordered the doors,” she said, “and the windows were still at Friedman's.”

She also knew there was a passage in the home construction contract she'd signed with Urban Equity stating: “It is against the law for a contractor to collect payment for work not yet completed or for materials not yet delivered.”

But the bill included a $29,000 item for framing, $17,500 for windows (“materials and labor,” the invoice specified), $18,000 for “rough plumbing,” and $7,800 for “exterior doors, hardware and labor install.”

After inspecting Adkins' homesite, another contractor calculated the framing was less than 50% complete, and the rough plumbing was about 30% complete. Working with that independent contractor, Adkins figured she owed Urban Equity $31,050, rather than $73,175.

She shared that calculation with Olpp, along with a list of requests recommended by the other contractor. “I care little to none what an independent estimator thinks,” he replied to her by email the next day. “Our jobs work on a payment schedule which is based on an ‘estimate' not an exact line item amount.” Her house would not go forward “an inch,” he said, until full payment of his invoice was made.

In mid-July, Adkins accepted Olpp's subsequent offer to part ways. Urban Equity then responded with another demand for payment. On Aug. 19, the contractor filed a mechanic's lien on her house. The practical result of such a lien is that, after a period, the contractor can attempt to collect a debt by forcing a sale of the home.

What's more, Urban Equity still held her building permit. This can lead to what Oswald, the city's top building official, called “a super unfortunate circumstance,” in which the city's hands are tied, even if it would like to take a permit away from a builder.

Permit revoked

Oswald, however, received a letter from Tim Hannan, a lawyer for Adkins, who wrote to the city in November explaining his client's plight: Urban Equity refused to resume work on her Coffey Park house until she paid the $73,000 invoice. The rainy season was approaching, and her house had not been made weather tight.

“Clearly, Ms. Adkins needs to hire a substitute building contractor,” Hannan wrote. “But she faces an impediment only your office can remove.”

If the city did not strip the permit from Urban Equity, Hannan wrote, Adkins would be forced to sue Santa Rosa in civil court, for denying her “due process of the law.”

“That's actually what I need to happen,” Oswald said in an interview. To take a permit from a contractor, “I need a judge's court order to say, turn over this permit.”

Plans for a lawsuit became moot early last month, when the Santa Rosa building department deemed “expired” Urban Equity's permit to build Adkins' house. No inspections had taken place for 180 days. That, in the eyes of the city, constituted abandonment of the project.

Adkins, now looking for a different builder, said she has suffered damages of $89,000 due to Urban Equity's “deficient and dilatory work,” as her attorney put it. For its part, Urban Equity had sent her an updated invoice in August. This one, for $70,720, included $4,000 for dumpsters, which she found especially puzzling.

“No one's ever seen a dumpster on my property. There is so much trash” on the site, she said. “The kiddie pools they used to mix cement are still at the base of the trash pile.”

Feeling let down

Miguel Hernandez also has been frustrated by Urban Equity's seeming indifference to the terms of the contract his parents signed with the company to rebuild their home on Tuliptree Road. The contract they signed calls for $13,650 in landscaping. The contractor told him it can only pay $4,000 for landscaping, Hernandez said.

When Hernandez suggested Urban Equity “give us the money to finish it ourselves,” Olpp shot that down.

“The line item for landscaping was used to complete the construction of the home,” he replied by text to Hernandez.

The Hernandez home, however, is not complete. Until Urban Equity finishes landscaping and a dozen or so other outstanding items, Hernandez, his wife and their toddler are living in his parents' house with a temporary occupancy permit - as they have been for over a year.

Adkins, Johnson and Hernandez all think they were let down by the local and state agencies responsible for protecting them after unsuccessful efforts to work with Urban Equity. After reaching out to McGuire, for example, Adkins was connected to the state contractors license board. She set up a phone appointment with one of the board's investigators, who neither called at the appointed time nor responded to a half-dozen voicemails she subsequently left for him.

On Friday, several days after The Press Democrat posed questions about her complaint to the licensing board, the investigator sent Adkins an email requesting additional documentation.

The state board fields 20,000 consumer complaints a year about contractors.

Investigators are working on 35 to 45 cases at a given time, said Rick Lopes, the contractors license board's chief spokesman, who declined to answer questions about the complaints lodged against Urban Equity by Coffey Park residents.

Tom Snyder, owner of Snyder Construction Inc. in Windsor, a company that has completed numerous Coffey Park home rebuilds since the devastating 2017 fires, said in general: “What it boils down to, as a builder, is supervision.”

He also stressed the importance of contractors “knowing what you're looking for, and knowing when it's not right. And if it's not, you need to put on the brakes and fix it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or

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