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Santa Rosa contractor vows to finish, free of charge, woman’s half-built house

Two and a half years after the Tubbs fire took out most of Coffey Park in October 2017, the rebuilding of that northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood was proceeding at a remarkably brisk clip.

For the most part.

During his months working on a house on the cul-de-sac Randon Way, contractor Michael Wolff could not help noticing, day after day, the eyesore just behind the lot where he was working.

It was the plywood shell on which progress had come to a grinding halt. The front yard was piled high with refuse, including several kiddie pools once used for mixing concrete.

That property blight on Waring Court was “heartbreaking,” said Wolff, the founder of Wolff Contracting of Santa Rosa, and “an insult to the entire construction community.”

After learning the backstory of that project — it was owned by Marybeth Adkins, who’d fired two builders, and now couldn’t afford to finish the house — Wolff interceded. A former Marine with a soft spot for underdogs, he consulted his co-workers, and made a decision in the spring. Despite Adkins’ limited budget, Wolff Contracting would finish her house, with help from any other companies willing to pitch in.

“Why are we in business?” Wolff asked rhetorically Wednesday, raising his voice over a clatter of hammers, as his workers finished the framing on Adkins’ house. “It’s not to make money. I mean, yes, we have to make a profit to stay in business. But our mission is to improve peoples’ lives, and if what we’re doing is in keeping with that core value, the money will just happen.”

Domino effect

When Adkins lost her house in the wildfire, her bad luck was just beginning. To rebuild, she first turned to Chiaramonte Construction of Tulare, whom she fired after that builder blew a series of deadlines. In July, Chiaramonte’s owners were briefly jailed and charged by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office with 59 felony counts, including grand theft of personal property and theft from elderly clients.

After firing Chiaramonte, Adkins turned to Santa Rosa-based Urban Equity Builders, a company now being scrutinized by California’s Contractors State License Board. In May 2019, Adkins balked at paying a $73,000 invoice from Urban Equity that charged her for labor that she claimed hadn’t been completed, and some materials that hadn’t been delivered.

The two parties officially parted ways five months ago, after each signed an agreement not to disparage the other. While she spoke to the Press Democrat at length for a January story that detailed her struggles with Urban Equity, Adkins declined to comment for this article.

After firing Urban Equity, she lacked the money to finish her house until Wolff came to the rescue.

His hope, Wolff said, was that “other people would get involved, too, and it would create a domino effect.”

So it has. The paint company Kelly Moore is donating all the paint for the project, said Ava Warren, associate project manager for Wolff Contracting in charge of wrangling those dominos. Warren Construction and Roofing decided to donate all the materials for Adkins’ roof — a critical addition, with a rainy season on the horizon. Golden State Lumber has pledged to provide the siding for the house. Alpha Fire Suppression Systems, Lozano Electric and North Bay Platinum Plumbing are all offering generous discounts.

Before any new construction could begin, “we had to haul off a dump truck worth of trash (Urban Equity) left behind,” said Warren, who also ticked off a list of defects Wolff has had to correct, including framing that could not pass city inspection, and daylight coming through the cracks “because they didn’t finish the sheeting.”

“Time out,” said Charles Olpp, founder and owner of Urban Equity Builders, when asked for comment on the matter.

After months of a standoff with Adkins, “We said, pay us or we don’t move forward, and she said, move forward or we won’t pay you,” Olpp said. Urban Equity then put a mechanic’s lien on her Coffey Park property in August 2019, and issued a stop work notice.

Because Urban Equity filed that lien and stopped work, “we didn’t get to finish” Adkins’ house, he said. “If we’d been allowed to talk to the engineer and do field corrections, those defects wouldn’t be there.”

Crossed construction paths before

Earlier, Wolff had stepped in to finish a different house started by Urban Equity, this one on nearby Tuliptree Road in Coffey Park. Olpp was pleased to discuss that Tuliptree project.

There came a time during the construction of that house, he recalled, “When we started seeing this Wolff construction truck show up.”

One day Olpp got a call from his foreman, working across the street from that house on Tuliptree. The foreman told him he had videotape of two men, pulling up to the house in a Wolff Contracting truck, going inside, taking the structural plans — documents that guide the builders — getting back into the truck and leaving.

Olpp called Wolff and confronted him. Wolff, he said, denied that his workers did any such thing.

Asked Wednesday about Olpp’s account of the stolen plans, Wolff said, “It might’ve happened.”

After ending its relationship with Urban Equity, the owner of that house asked Wolff to finish the project.

“They hadn’t worked on it in months,” Wolff said of Urban Equity, “and garbage was piled up in front of the property. If they cared about those plans, why did they abandon everything?”

People would be less inclined to view Wolff as a hero, Olpp contended, if they knew about this incident. “Wolff Construction stole something from me, and denied it.”

Meanwhile, Olpp’s Urban Equity construction company remains under scrutiny by the California Contractors State License Board for six possible violations, including departure from trade standards, exceeding contract amount, and receiving and requesting more money than work completed.

All of those potential violations are from one complaint, filed by one unhappy customer, Olpp pointed out.

“Complaints get opened and closed weekly,” he said, suggesting these are not a big deal. “I tackle them one at a time.”

The important thing, he said, is that he has no “outstanding violations that have stuck. I have a bond, I have workman’s compensation. My license is clean as a whistle and I intend to keep it that way.”

Determined to serve

The son of a Marine, Wolff intended to enlist straight out of Petaluma High School. During his junior year, however, he broke his back in a car accident. The Marines deemed him medically unqualified. “I was devastated,” he said.

Wolff attended Santa Rosa Junior College, and was a member of the wrestling team. Five years after his first attempt, he tried to enlist in the Marines again. “They tried to medically disqualify me again,” he recalled. This time he argued his case, and got a medical waiver.

Deployed to Iraq in 2008, he was a staff sergeant in an expeditionary force that moved through Al Anbar province and along the Syrian border.

After 14 years of service, he left the Marines in 2009 to start his company. In 2018, Wolff Contracting built a group of 14 small houses for homeless veterans on county-owned land in north Santa Rosa. The Veterans Village was “transformative,” said Wolff, both for himself and his employees, who worked long days to finish the houses on time, and the veterans it got off the streets.

Wolff returned from Iraq, he revealed, “with some pretty bad PTSD” — post traumatic stress disorder. “I still deal with it sometimes.”

One of the reasons he took on the Veterans Village project “was because I understand, on a deep level, how veterans can end up homeless, how they can end up feeling like they’ve got nobody that really understands.

“When I’m focused on work and on other people, and people are depending on me, I’m dealing with that, and not dealing with other things,” he said.

For its part, Wolff Contracting continues to gallop along. In addition to numerous other projects, the company is doing much of the concrete work and framing for a 54-unit apartment complex in Santa Rosa.

Such contracts make it possible for him and his employees to help people like Adkins, or, as Wolff put it, “to do the stuff that makes us feel really good.”

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

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