Note: This investigative news story originally broke on Feb. 10, 2010 on InstantNewsWestU.com. View the original here, or download a PDF version. The article was followed by two others, Questions About City Enforcement In Builders’ Paperwork Oversight (link or PDF) and Positive Changes Fix Problems In Building Dept. (link or PDF).
The ten problematic homes in West University Place are huge and beautiful — luxurious — ranging in value from $945,000 right up to $2.8 million. Without knowing about a major paperwork oversight, families have lived in the homes for four, five, sometimes up to nine years.
Although the circumstances vary, city staff have discovered one disturbing commonality: All the homes were built by the same company, Covington Builders, which allegedly failed to obtain the city’s official stamp of approval before allowing families to move in. City staffers have found 29 other West U. homes with the same problem — No certificate of occupancy.
The city’s ordinances place the responsibility on builders to complete a litany of inspections to earn the important certificate of occupancy, which proves the home is safe and complies with all city laws.
Residents do not need to be alarmed about their safety, because there’s probably nothing seriously wrong with their homes. Many of Covington Builders’ outstanding issues deal with the numbers of trees planted on the lots. If completed today, other outstanding inspections on more serious things like drainage and plumbing systems probably wouldn’t turn up a problem: By now, issues would have surfaced on their own.
“You’re just trying to gain compliance is what you’re trying to do,” said John Brown, chief building official in West U. “In this particular case with Covington homes, there has not been any great effort to see this is completed.”
Covington now risks a suspension of his license to work in West U. because city staffers say he has shown a systematic disdain for the city’s rules. The issue also raises questions about the city’s own record keeping — How did the homes slip through the cracks for so long?
Defining A Problem
The city discovered the paperwork problem when Brown began a comprehensive review of all outstanding building permits. He found 39 homes that do not have certificates. Ten of those, or 25 percent, were constructed by Covington Builders. Now Brown has approached the West U. Building and Standards Commission to hold hearings with the company’s owner, Robert Covington, trying to send a simple message to builders citywide.
“The issue to me, and what I want to get across not only to this builder but any builder that builds here in the city of West University Place, is that a certificate of occupancy is required. It’s part of the process. That’s what we need to do,” Brown said.
Covington, who is also a resident of West U., defended himself at the commission’s hearing on Feb. 4. He said through the years building homes in the city, he thought he complied with building laws and he fixed problems as he became aware of them.
“I work hard. This is my bread and butter. I love this place and I work very hard to please people. I’m not defiant, I’m not resistant,” Covington said. “I believe I did, and do, what’s right with the city.”
Covington will keep his license to work in the city, at least for the next 30 days. The Building and Standards Commission decided to postpone a decision about whether to suspend his license until its next meeting on March 4. In the meantime, the commission tasked Covington to work with city staff to complete all his outstanding inspections.
“A lot of it is just going to be check, check, check,” said Commission Chair Bryant Slimp when he ordered Covington to meet with Brown. “Whatever you and he need to do to clean up the mess.”
39 Outstanding Homes
Nineteen building companies popped up in the city’s review because they failed to complete all inspections and earn their certificates of occupancy for one or more homes. Covington Builders leads the pack with 10 certificate-less homes, but other companies aren’t far behind — Lovett Custom Homes has six homes with no certificates, and Stonehenge Classic Homes has four (According to Debbie Crow, the wife of Stonehenge’s owner, two of the company’s homes on the city’s list are still under construction — See below for explanation. She said she thought the city made mistakes on the two others, which were completed in 2000.). Two other companies have two and three homes, respectively, and fourteen companies on the list have just one home each with no certificate.
Many of the addresses on the list have more than one outstanding inspection that prevented them from earning certificates. Some inspections deal more with aesthetics than safety — For example, 15 homes never had a final tree inspection to prove the builders replaced all the trees removed during construction. But some outstanding inspections are more serious, dealing with plumbing, drainage, electrical and mechanical systems.
Just because there is an outstanding inspection doesn’t mean there are safety issues in the home. But builders are tasked with checking off a long list of inspections that must come before the final building inspection. At that point, city staffers go over every inch of the homes and make sure everything is safe.
“If an inspection hasn’t been done, then I don’t know,” Brown said.
He wants to make sure all the inspections are now completed on the 39 homes so he can issue the certificates of occupancy and close the city’s files for the properties.
History Of Alleged Noncompliance
Brown said he tried repeatedly to work with Covington to complete outstanding items, but the builder refused to do his part. The city wanted Covington to contact the homeowners.
“You said you would,” Brown said. “Two days later you called my office and said, ‘I’m not going to do that. If I call these people they’re going to sue me’.”
In one case, Covington and his family moved into a home in the 3500 block of Albans Street. Serious inspections were outstanding, including checks on the drainage, electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems and more. When the city learned the family lived there, Covington received a citation. About a month later, Covington ordered all the inspections and received a certificate of occupancy for the home. Now it is on sale on the company Website for nearly $2 million.
“Until we called him on it, until we issued a citation, he had made no effort to finish and get the certificate,” Brown said. “He knows as a builder that you cannot occupy a house without any of the finals being done.”
Brown added later: “There’s a history here of ‘I don’t care. I’ve got my money’ … This is a pattern of not following the rules, not caring enough to follow them.”
Covington admitted that he knew the home on Albans Street had no certificate, but he said the recession has impacted his business and personal finances so much that he had no other option than to move into the house.
Ron Simon, Covington’s attorney who attended the Feb. 4 hearing, said that Covington Builders changed offices about three years ago, and purged old documents that would prove the company had completed outstanding items on the other homes.
“These allegations have gone stale,” Simon said. “All the stuff that relates to this is gone.”
Covington said he thought he had followed the city’s rules.
Emily Wells, who lives in a Covington-built home in the 4100 block of Tennyson Street, said she remembers a day before moving into her home in 2005 when Covington and an independent firm met her to complete inspections.
“They had a long list, and he came here and met with them,” Wells said. “Really, he was great … Just the details on the house, he did everything we asked him to do.”
City records show that all inspections were completed on Wells’ home except the building final inspection, which did prevent the house from earning a certificate.
Covington said at the Feb. 4 meeting that from 2001 to 2004, he ran his company with a business partner who was responsible for some of the homes without certificates.
“I trusted him with it,” he said. “I would have had no clue my business partner didn’t do what he was supposed to do, if he did that.”
Seven of the 10 Covington Builders homes failed to earn certificates because Covington didn’t complete the final tree inspection, along with other inspections in some cases. On Sept. 1, Covington and Brown met with the city’s forester, who wanted the builder’s help gaining access to the backyards of multiple homes to count the trees that Covington had planted during construction. Covington refused to contact the homeowners.
At the Feb. 4 hearing, he said through the decade as he built homes in West U., he spent thousands of dollars and brought in truckloads of trees to comply with the city’s laws.
The law says that builders must replace the amount of inches of trees they remove, and if they cannot plant the trees on that lot, they must pay money into a tree fund that the city uses to plant trees in parks and elsewhere.
Simon said that Covington Builders couldn’t always fit the right number of trees on its construction sites, so the company would plant trees in a one-block radius of the home. Sometimes they planted in parks, Simon said.
“I really don’t believe I short changed West U. of these trees,” Covington said. “The only point I want to make is this is not me trying to skirt the rules and regulations … That’s not who I am.”
But without proof, it will be difficult for the city to determine whether Covington owes money to the tree fund. Based on the trees the city can measure in the homes’ front yards, the city estimates that Covington owes $10,300. That number will probably change once the city gains access to the backyards.
Sending A Message
The Building and Standards Commission said that Covington must get the inspections done before March 4, or it will be forced to hold the hearing to consider suspending his license.
“You have violated, you haven’t remedied,” said Chair Bryant Slimp. “You leave us very little room. It’s up to you.”
Brown said he hopes other builders get the message.
“We are serious about following the rules,” Brown said. “Get your certificate of occupancy and be finished with the project.”
Note: InstantNewsWestU updated this story at 12:36 p.m. to indicate that two homes built by Stonehenge Classic Homes without certificates of occupancy are actually still under construction with no one living in them.