Renovating Without a License
Shoddy Work by Unlicensed Contractors Rankles Reservoir Hill Homeowners and Investors
“I woke up and there was smoke everywhere,” Parks says. “It was thick, and I thought, What the heck is going on?’”
Parks traced the problem to the roof. The workers, Parks says, had cut off his chimney and covered the opening with plywood and roofing felt. “Smoke was billowin’ out from under that [tar] paper,” he says. His furnace hasn’t worked since.
Parks complained to the building’s owner, Todd Wetzelberger of New Orleans, who had bought both 2334 and 2338 Madison Avenue from the city in November for $34,000. Parks says Wetzelberger was unsympathetic to his problem. “You were the general contractor on that job,” Parks says Wetzelberger told him.
Oddly enough, that may be technically true. Parks actually worked on that roof himself in 2004, charging Wetzelberger $22 an hour on invoices in which he was called the “general contractor.”
The Parks-Wetzelberger dispute—which has mushroomed into a “no contact” order filed in court and pending assault and deadly-weapon charges against Parks for menacing Wetzelberger with a pellet gun—is just the latest case of unwanted outcomes stemming from the use of unlicensed home-improvement contractors in Reservoir Hill.
Touted by city officials and private real estate interests as an exemplar of Baltimore’s emerging renaissance, the diverse neighborhood of amply proportioned rowhouses and apartment buildings has seen its property values appreciate dramatically over the past five years as new homeowners and, sometimes, longtime landholders renovated.
But amid the whine of saws and crack of hammers, people have been hurt by what they say were shoddy contractors, most of them unlicensed by the Maryland Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. Brigitte Baker, for example, was driving past a major renovation project at 1100 Whitelock St. last summer when a three-story scaffold fell on her car (“Unsafe Zone,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 8). She was hospitalized. The contractors involved were not licensed or insured. Baker filed a civil suit against the building’s owners, Joshua and Richard Siegel, which is pending.
In May 1999 Vivian Lee-Carpenter hired her then-landlord in Reservoir Hill, Al Johnson, to rehab her and her husband’s new home on Reservoir Street. Johnson brought in Wilbert Epps to help with the over $72,000 job, but nearly eight months after the project’s expected start date and after paying more than $47,000 with little to show for it, Lee-Carpenter and her husband took over the project themselves. They took their contractors—who were not licensed—to arbitration and got a $30,302 judgment, she says. But in the 19 months since that judgment, the Carpenters have not been paid and Epps has incorporated under a new trade name, gotten his license, and is still working in Reservoir Hill.
Then there’s 2237 Linden Ave., under renovation and listed for sale for more than $200,000, according to neighbors. That house collapsed in April.
Sara West, housing coordinator for the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, says she isn’t sure who was working in that house. “I worry more about the buildings that are still standing,” she says. “The one on the other side [of the collapsed shell] is owned by the Housing Authority [of Baltimore City]. I’ve been trying to get an inspector to get a look at it.”
John Ruffin, the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council’s executive director, says his group is working to curb the problem of poor and unlicensed contractors. “We’re in the process of creating a community monitoring program,” he says, to make sure people doing renovations are pulling building permits. Ruffin calls it a “model program” and hopes to see 20 community volunteers take a training course in city code enforcement next month. “We wanted to incorporate all the activities happening in and around Reservoir Hill,” Ruffin says. “Not only housing and rehab efforts, but also public safety and sanitation.”
But checking to see that projects have building permits may not solve the problem. Lee-Carpenter, for example, had all permits and even a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program—complete with inspector—to make sure the project proceeded smoothly. She says she did not discover that her contractors were unlicensed until after the job went sour. The 1100 Whitelock project was and is fully permitted as well, but it is still unfinished long after its projected completion date. In both those cases, contractors used false license numbers on their permits. Baltimore City officials take no responsibility for the frauds; they have said that they get too many permit applications to check anyone’s state license.
The Maryland Home Improvement Commission notes on its web site that it’s “a criminal offense to do home improvements without a license,” and claims to have recovered more than $1.1 million in restitution so far this year for victims through criminal cases across the state, according to minutes from its April meeting.
That’s up sharply from last year. As of April 2004, the commission had recovered $740,559 through restitution in criminal cases.
But the commission does not offer satisfaction in every case. Lee-Carpenter complained repeatedly about Epps, she says. “[The Maryland Home Improvement Commission] said they could not do anything on our case because he was not licensed at the time,” she says. “Plus the statute of limitations was over—it was supposed to be a year.”
Today, Epps says he was basically uninvolved with Lee-Carpenter’s project. “I estimated the job. I helped [Johnson] do the necessary paperwork for him to do the actual project,” Epps says. Then, after Johnson and Lee-Carpenter had a falling out over money, he says, “I called and offered to finish the job.” Epps says he was surprised when he was found personally liable for the $30,302 damage award, and claims Johnson told him he would take care of it.
Court records indicate that Johnson was granted bankruptcy in 2004. A call placed to a phone number Epps said belongs to Johnson was not returned.
“My work is outstanding,” says Epps, who now runs a company called New Vision Interior Exterior Remodeling Contractors, which he says does between $200,000 and $500,000 of work per year. “I don’t run around trying to do bad work.”
Ruffin and West of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council say they’re recruiting home-improvement contractors to submit to a vetting process by the community, in which they’ll divulge their license numbers, insurance status, and references, which volunteers will check. “We’re trying to create a directory which we can put on our web site,” Ruffin says.
Lee-Carpenter says it’s about time. “When new neighbors move in, we contact them and give them a list of who not to use, and who is good,” she says, speaking of her block group. “We look out for neighbors.”
Given that, Epps says he’s considering suing Lee-Carpenter for “slander.” He stresses that his new company never worked for Lee-Carpenter, and that he was not a contractor before he began New Vision. But court records indicate a record of criminal activity—such as theft and passing bad checks to lumber suppliers—dating to the mid 1980s. In 1990 Epps was arrested on drugs and gun charges in Cecil County; and a charge for a 1997 bad check written to United Wholesale Building Supply landed him on probation until 2000.
“I’m not a squeaky-clean guy. This is from 20 years of being around,” Epps says of his criminal history. He chalks it up to a growing experience: “Once you learn something, you try not to repeat those type of habits.”
Lisa Smith says she has another judgment against Epps from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission for the maximum allowable—$15,000—though she says she’s owed $22,000 for poor work Epps’ company did on her Eutaw Place home. Epps is appealing the commission’s decision to suspend his license, Smith says.
“For us it’s not about the money,” Lee-Carpenter says. “It’s about people not being allowed to do this thing over and over again.”
Meanwhile, at 2332 Madison, Parks paces on his back deck, describing his troubles with the contractor next door. He is barred by a court “peace” order from having any contact with Wetzelberger, mostly because he would not stop calling the New Orleans developer after his furnace stopped working.
“I called him up any hour of the day or night, saying, ‘You gonna come up here and fix my stuff!’” Parks says. “I mean, I called him with vigor.”
Parks says he did this only after rounds of calls to the city’s housing authority, code enforcement, and the Project SCOPE (“Selling City Owned Properties Efficiently”) program, which sold the city-owned buildings to Wetzelberger for conversion into home-ownership opportunities. Parks says everyone he spoke to asked him if he had a lawyer, and that lawyers he called would not take his case unless he gave them “$250 an hour and $50 per phone call.” That would be more than Parks earned hiring himself out as “general contractor” to Wetzelberger.
Parks, who acknowledges he’s no contractor, shows invoices stating that he charged Wetzelberger $22 an hour, for a total of eight hours, to work on the next-door roof. “I just did it to keep an eye on his contractors,” Parks says, claiming they were “bootleg”—or unlicensed.
Then one day in the spring, after the court had barred Parks from speaking to Wetzelberger, Parks noticed the developer in the backyard of the neighboring house. Parks got his BB gun, which he says he used routinely to plink rats that try to drink from his backyard pond, and commenced shooting “target practice” at some cans set on his back fence.
“He got so intimidated that he called the cops,” Parks says. “So we got to go to court on that. I wanted to intimidate him. And I’ll say that in the court.”
Wetzelberger, reached on his cell phone, said he was too busy to talk to City Paper and promised to call back, but did not do so before press time.
Parks, who spent a night in jail because of the incident, says he never shot anywhere near Wetzelberger. “I know that was immature, but . . . dude, I was pissed.” The trial is scheduled for May 25.
“As soon as that peace order is over,” Parks says, “I will be calling him.”
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