City lifts suspension of Pasco developer
By LEONORA LaPETER
ST. PETERSBURG -- General Home Development Corp. was given the go-ahead Thursday to build homes again through the St. Petersburg's affordable housing loan program.
Deputy Mayor Tish Elston lifted the city's suspension of the Pasco County developer, saying that complaints of price increases and delays that arose during a seven-hour hearing a week ago were either not proved or strong enough to warrant the suspension.
"Based on the testimony and exhibits, I cannot fault GHD exclusively for the applicant complaints," Elston wrote in her ruling.
Half a dozen home buyers who received loan assistance through the city's Working to Improve our Neighborhoods program have complained that the company took too long to build their homes, didn't give them what they asked for or charged them thousands of dollars extra for driveways, tree removal and landscaping. The company has built about 75 percent of the city's affordable homes in recent years.
"I don't think it should have been lifted with all the people there and the allegations against this company," Valorie Gordon, a home buyer and the mother of two handicapped children, said Thursday. She and her husband, Robert, complained at the hearing that the handicapped-accessible home built for them was so poorly done that it was dangerous for her children.
"It kind of makes me hurt within my heart to know they're going to continue to deceive people," she added.
In her ruling, Elston said she wasn't vindicating the company or ignoring the home buyers. But General Home Development president Thomas E. Smith said he felt exonerated. He said his company, which has built more than 3,000 homes, did nothing wrong.
"We've been in business for 30 years and this was an affront to our integrity," Smith said Thursday. "They jumped too quickly in suspending us from the WIN program without sitting down and looking at the facts."
Elston declined to comment on her report.
"Clearly, the testimony showed that communication problems and lack of clarity on product, cost and time frames exist," she wrote. "What is not clear is the extent of responsibility for such problems to be borne by GHD, the complexity of the process itself, the customer's lack of experience or unrealistic expectations, and the city's process."
Elston said it was difficult to figure out whether the company had violated WIN rules. The only "concrete assertion" was that, in some cases, addendums for driveways, tree removal and landscaping were not provided for WIN records along with the construction contract.
Smith said Thursday that his company always provides those to WIN, but the program is disorganized and loses documents.
Smith argued at the hearing that customers charged extra for driveways, tree removal and landscaping would be reimbursed at closing.
He said the company was not to blame for the delays, that the lender, North American Mortgage, changed ownership and many home buyers' loans were delayed as a result.
The company is also being investigated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is looking at whether the company steered home buyers to certain neighborhoods and banks and made improper changes to contracts, according to city officials. Smith has said he uses 19 different lenders and customers pick the neighborhoods they want to live in.
Elston said HUD's review does not warrant a suspension because no evidence was presented that that's the normal practice. HUD's review could take months or years.
Smith said his company would not change anything, despite the complaints.
"I don't know what else we can do," Smith said. "We did exactly what the contract documents called for, and we always have in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future."
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