Special Reports

Is builders group too involved in City Hall?

Maple Shade resident Steve Garner shows how the linoleum in his kitchen is stretching from a crack in the concrete that runs from the street, through his driveway, through the house and out to the end of his patio. (Dec. 22, 2010)
Maple Shade resident Steve Garner shows how the linoleum in his kitchen is stretching from a crack in the concrete that runs from the street, through his driveway, through the house and out to the end of his patio. (Dec. 22, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

The treadmill in Chelsee Andersen's southeast Wichita house hides a $40,000 secret — the start of a widening crack that meanders under the carpet across her living room and kitchen, rendering the $140,000 house unsellable.

"My house is 5 years old. It should not be cracking in half," the Air Force pilot said.

Her fiance, Will Thomas, said they have no options beyond spending thousands on lawyers.

"To me, it's like the new age robbery," Thomas said. "It's no different than taking a gun and saying, 'Give me $140,000.' "

The couple is among a group of homeowners in the Maple Shade subdivision south of Harry on Webb who face huge repair bills as their new houses crumble.

They feel failed by a system that many say lacks key building codes and favors builders over consumers.

During the past 15 years, through a lawsuit and political activism, the Wichita Area Builders Association has become perhaps the most effective political lobby working at City Hall.

"They're engaged. Intimately engaged," said Ed Flentje, who served as interim city manager between George Kolb and Robert Layton.

"They've got committees watching all sorts of stuff at City Hall. They overlap with what the city does and they're aggressive and active in making sure their membership is well protected."

Consider:

* A 1994 lawsuit the association filed against the city limited how the city spends building permit fees to demolish dangerous structures and fight blight.

* The city invited a builders representative to join a panel interviewing candidates to become the city's chief building inspector, one of the key people policing the building industry.

But top city officials say the builders never showed up and weren't involved in the final decision.

* Interviews with former code inspectors at City Hall indicate that well-connected builders can complain and get violations erased. One former code inspector said his job was to keep the builders happy.

* The builders have developed sophisticated candidate recruitment and training to help select politicians win local and state elections. And association members provide tens of thousands of dollars in campaign finance funds to bolster their chances.

In the wake of several Eagle stories about problems in Maple Shade, city officials announced they will explore stricter building codes.

The city and the builders have formed a task force to examine whether to require soil testing and slab inspections to make sure patio-style houses, like Andersen's, are built correctly and on stable ground.

Andersen is skeptical that the task force will lead to meaningful change.

"Nothing works," she said. "Seller's disclosure doesn't work. A private home inspector doesn't work. You can't trust the builder. You can't trust the city."

Layers of problems

Today, there are at least six houses in the subdivision just south of Harry on Webb that are cracking apart, built on what city officials and structural engineers say is bad fill dirt on unstable clay, in an area with drainage problems developers have let persist for two years.

Layton has voiced support for the city-builders association task force that will try to fill regulatory gaps that may have contributed to problems in Maple Shade.

He said that by spring he expects proposals for soil testing requirements, slab foundation construction guidelines and zoning standards — many of which are already in place in cities throughout Kansas and the nation.

A two-month examination of Maple Shade's six crumbling houses has exposed several layers of problems.

* City building codes do not require contractors to test soil conditions before building even though nearly half the city sits on clay soil that is susceptible to expanding, contracting and shifting in subtle ways that can strain a house's foundation.

* A city building inspector first documented a Maple Shade house with a buckling slab and cracking walls in 2008.

But the city noted the case was in private arbitration and did not probe deeper into the cause of the problems, check with neighboring homeowners or launch an investigation to see whether the city should present a case to have the builder's license suspended or revoked.

* The builders association learned of cracking slab foundations and structural problems in two Maple Shade houses in 2008. But it did not inform the city inspections office during quarterly meetings.

* When developers changed the zoning on one of their two rural lots to pave the way for a 66-lot subdivision, city planners and storm water engineers did not require a grading plan that would map where rain should flow.

The drainage plan that was submitted did not function properly, channeling floodwater to a low-lying area where houses developed structural problems.

* Flooding problems have continued at the far eastern edge of Maple Shade and parts of the adjacent Brentwood South subdivision for more than two years. The city lacks authority to mandate a solution — though it is continuing a 2-year-old effort to get developers to fix the problem, this time by March 1.

The Maple Shade homeowners say they can't beat the politics and the problems of Wichita's homebuilding industry.

Here's their choice: Fix their house or pay attorneys to take the case to court.

The homeowners face financial ruin from repair bills ranging from Andersen's $40,000 to almost $85,000 for 74-year-old widow Betty Wiens.

"I really don't think the city cares about me and my house," said Steve Garner, whose 3-year-old Maple Shade house has a widening crack running through it. "They care about one thing: the property taxes I'm going to pay, whether the house is there or not... and the sales taxes they collected from the builder. That's all."

Layton said he feels bad for the homeowners, and he's pressing for solutions to prevent similar problems.

But, he said, the city's existing codes ensure people's safety and that it's unfair to blame the city for problems in Maple Shade when it had only limited regulations for houses built on slab foundations.

The Eagle found that several cities in Kansas, including Derby and Park City, have stricter soil and slab inspection regulations.

Layton acknowledged some "weakness" in the system and the city's slow reaction.

"I am disappointed that we weren't responsive enough early on," he said. "I hope at this point, at least, we're doing a better job of listening."

Complaints date back

Several Maple Shade homeowners say the city's response is slow at best.

Two homeowners recall city inspectors visiting at least two houses with structural problems in their area.

Richard Brown, a combination inspector who was laid off from the city Oct. 1 said he visited a house in Maple Shade, perhaps in 2009 — he wasn't sure of the date.

He said he photographed cracking walls and floors, and he received copies of photos from the homeowner. Brown said he filed a report with his supervisor.

"We went out there and investigated and sure enough there were problems and we reported it back and I never did hear back what to do about it," Brown said.

Because it lacks regulations, the city couldn't have done much to help, beyond suggesting the homeowner hire a lawyer and structural engineer.

But both Brown and a homeowner remember talking about how Brown's testimony could help in a civil lawsuit and how the city could present evidence during a hearing in City Hall to suspend or revoke Clint Miller's contractor license.

"I turned it over and said we ought to go after this guy," Brown said. "But we didn't."

Flash forward to October of this year when Kurt Schroeder, the city's superintendent of central inspection, and builders association president Wess Galyon arrive at the crumbling house of 74-year-old widow, Betty Wiens.

Schroeder said his office had only recently begun exploring problems in the neighborhood.

After looking at the inch-wide cracks in the floor and failing walls, Schroeder said the city was investigating and would consider whether to open a hearing to suspend or revoke Clint Miller's license.

That investigation has not been completed.

The city's inspection office sometimes neglects to bring cases against contractor's licenses that inspectors feel should be punished, Brown said.

"Cases are brought against some contractors that for some reason or another slip through the cracks before disciplinary action can be had," he said.

Schroeder defends his office's work.

He said case notes from June 2008 show Brown investigated a cracked slab in Maple Shade and filed a subsequent note that the case was in arbitration and an award was being made.

"He closed the case," Schroeder said.

If inspectors see repeated problems, they should bring it to their supervisor's attention, Schroeder said. But he's not sure what should have happened in this case.

"It depends on what he (Brown) knew," he said. "I don't know what he knew. Did he know the slab was on bad soil? Did he know it (the concrete slab) was not thick enough?"

Schroeder said that the problems in Maple Shade are frustrating, but they appear to be isolated to a small part of the subdivision.

"Will we catch every problem forever?" he asked. "You know, with the 20 or 25,000 homes built? Most of them have been done pretty well. They're holding up great, to our knowledge. And we're trying to do due diligence if there's a case we can make."

Schroeder provided The Eagle with a summary of cases to suspend or revoke contractor licenses that the city's board of code standards and appeals has heard since 2006.

The board voted to place on probation, suspend or revoke contractors licenses in seven of the cases.

Two cases — both in 2006 — involved shoddy work.

In one case, a contractor's license was suspended for improperly installing a roof. It was reinstated after he fixed it. The same contractor, Glover Enterprises Inc., had his license revoked for building a carport without permits.

The other shoddy work case involved a 12-by-20 room addition that settled after it was built, cracking the walls. The contractor fixed the room within 30 days, and the board took no other action.

No licenses have been reviewed this year.

Private eye, public policy

For years, the city's housing inspection office was financed by tax dollars.

Until 1980, that is, when city officials made the inspections department a self-sustaining fee-supported office.

Fifteen years later, homebuilding increased and building permit revenue far exceeded the costs of running the inspection office — resulting in a $2 million-plus cash reserve that city officials tapped to fight blight and gangs, said former Wichita Mayor Elma Broadfoot.

"We had a huge public safety issue," Broadfoot said. "Drive-bys were a major factor. Homicides were up." And people were demanding that the city move on the housing blight that hatched many of those problems, Broadfoot said.

Former Wichita City Manager Chris Cherches agreed, taking $250,000 of building permit surplus in 1994 to demolish a blighted northeast Wichita housing development.

That was too much for the builders, who filed a lawsuit against the city to restrict how those building permit fees were spent.

"We said, 'Wait a second. What's the deal here?' " Galyon recalled.

"Because at that time, the typical amount of money spent to tear down a substandard residence was about $1,300...

"I said we don't think that's appropriate because of the nature of how the operation is funded and the way it's funded. They said we're going to do it and you can't do anything about it. I said well, we can. We'll test it in court. We did and we won."

Building relationships

In a 1995 Wichita City Council resolution that settled the lawsuit, the city said it wants a "better relationship" with builders and agreed to spend no more than 20 percent of permit fees on inspecting existing houses with problems and fighting blight.

Since then, the city has invited the builders association to the table for quarterly city inspections budget discussions, behind-the-scenes policy development and, in at least one case, to a panel interviewing candidates for the city's top building inspector position.

City officials say the relationship is mutually beneficial.

It brings experts from the construction industry in on the front end of policy discussions to provide ideas, feedback and opinion, Schroeder said.

"Theses guys deal with it every day," Schroeder said. "They see the new products, they see what is coming."

Schroeder said the relationship with builders doesn't prevent them from proposing regulations builders disagree with.

Still, former inspectors say the relationship between builders and the city is too cozy.

Former city plumbing inspector Frank Ritter calls the builders' influence "control."

"They pretty well run the place," he said. "It's kind of like this: Any time there's a new item in the code, they pretty well get approval first so they pretty well decide what we're going to inspect."

Ritter said the inspection system is heavily tilted toward contractors and builders.

"If you're a contractor and you're known in the city, you can call downtown and gripe and moan and get what you want," he said.

"They beat this into my head: We don't care if you enforce the code. We care if you get the customer mad. Do the job the best way you can, but don't get the customer mad. If I'd get a half-dozen complaints, I'd get written up and threatened to be fired."

WABA's political machine

The builders remain politically active: Campaign finance reports for Mayor Carl Brewer and current council members in the past two city elections include tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from WABA members.

The builders also invite chosen local and state political candidates to campaign training seminars with consultants who once ran the political arm of the National Association of Home Builders — until the national group dropped out of the political arena.

The seminars discuss fundraising benchmarks, campaign finance laws and strategy. Many of those who file for office after the seminars receive financial backing from the association's members.

"We're looking for people who understand the dynamic of what takes place in the marketplace," Galyon said. "We look for that, but we look for that in relation to the role of the private sector in relation to the role of government. We look for the maintenance of a rational balance in terms of their thinking. It can't be one way."

That means pro-growth, limited government candidates who let the marketplace dictate policy, Galyon said.

Galyon said his organization is happy with the results of its political activism.

"It's worked real well over the years," he said. "It's been successful, but not all the time. Over the last 10 years or so, we've got a better group of people who can work better together, who share a similar philosophy."

Failure to share that philosophy results in a one-way ticket out of City Hall, Broadfoot said.

"They had a lot of influence in terms of the political scene in this community during my term," she said. "If you didn't support their view on certain things, they would work against you getting elected."

Such as Broadfoot's re-election campaign in 1995, when she was defeated by Bob Knight.

"I think in the second election it (WABA's opposition) did certainly make a difference," she said.

Brewer said WABA is as influential in City Hall as the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce and the Wichita Independent Business Association.

But he said they don't have a big impact on his decisions.

"Quite naturally they're always going to do whatever's necessary to keep it cheaper for the homebuyer," he said. "But it's our job to look at it to see what's in the best interest and what's safest."

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