The news story below about the number of homeowners in SW Louisiana who have been victims of poorly repaired homes demonstrates the need to inform homeowners what resilient repairs look like, what to ask for from those who claim to be able to repair them. The Disaster Justice Network’s efforts to create and implement the “Rebuilding the Boot” campaign support homeowners’ ability to achieve resilient repair.
Contractor Fraud Delays Recovery in Lake Charles: 529 Complaints Filed Since Devastating 2020 Storms
BY ALENA MASCHKE, Staff writer Advocate/Times Picayune
August 30, 2022
LAKE CHARLES – With its manicured lawn and sky-blue wooden facade, Mary Ann Unson’s home looks orderly and welcoming. A small children’s pool sits in the front yard, a folding chair on the porch.
But Unson hasn’t lived in her home in the southern end of this city for two years. Instead, she, her husband and a disabled man the family took under their care decades ago live in an RV parked in the back of the property, with no real kitchen, no living room, just two small sleeping coves and a kitchenette.
Unson’s property took a beating when Hurricane Laura tore through Lake Charles in the early-morning hours of Aug. 27, 2020. Then came the contractors, who left her with a gutted home and wooden sticks poking out of the ground behind her house, where a cement foundation should be.
“I wouldn’t wish this on nobody,” Unson said, sitting on the porch in front of her empty home. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Four federally declared disasters damaged an estimated 44,000 homes in Calcasieu Parish, leaving many residents to search frantically for contractors to repair them during the past two years, which in turn left them vulnerable to bad actors. This has slowed down an already lagging recovery process, and many in the region warn that parishes affected by last year’s Hurricane Ida in the state’s southeast might be in for a similar experience.
Over the past two years, the Contractor Fraud Response Team, a collaboration between the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office, has fielded 529 complaints of contractor fraud. Out of those, 146 cases were accepted as criminal matters, leading to 82 arrests so far.These numbers dwarf those found in other parishes. For example, Lafourche Parish, which was hit hard by Ida, reported 19 residential contractor fraud cases since August 2020. St. Tammany Parish, which was also affected by Ida and has a similar population size to Calcasieu, saw 20 such cases in the same time frame, according to the local District Attorney’s Office.
‘Unlike any other’
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the high number of contractor fraud cases in Calcasieu Parish, the degree of devastation caused by Laura in the Lake Charles area likely played a significant role.
“It was a storm unlike any other,” said Jonathan Fontenot, an attorney with the Southwest Louisiana Law Center, which offers legal assistance to homeowners who have fallen victim to bad contractors. “There was hardly an untouched house in a 40-mile radius.”
With the sudden onslaught of repair work to be done and a lack of available workers, the area was ripe with opportunity for unlicensed, fraudulent or otherwise unqualified contractors.
People whose homes were made unlivable by storm damage were desperate to have them fixed, sometimes foregoing some of the precautionary measures now being promoted more actively by groups like the contractor fraud task force and the SWLA Law Center.
“Everybody would do handshake deals, pay upfront,” Fontenot recounts. “Nobody was prepared.”
Cases that don’t fit the criteria for criminal prosecution are especially prevalent and difficult to rectify, like Unson’s, where a succession of contractors performed shoddy work, but whose conduct likely wouldn’t be considered criminal under state law. That included pouring a concrete foundation that had to be replaced and completely gutting her house, a step she now thinks may have been unnecessary and has driven up the cost of renovation.
“That’s what hurts on our side, because we can’t do anything for them,” said Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Stephen C. Dwight, who said he has seen more of these kinds of cases being brought to his office, which is unable to resolve them. “A lot of them now are spotty craftsmanship, that we can’t necessarily prosecute them for. It’s horrible what they did, but it’s not criminal.”
It hurts the victims of bad contractors, too. While criminal prosecution gives them a shot at restitution at no cost, civil litigation comes with a high price tag and lower chances of receiving any money from defendants, especially those from out of state.’Burned out’While some experts disagree on what qualifies as criminal conduct, there are also practical limitations to the number of cases that can be handled by the task force, which was formed in response to the onslaught of complaints after Laura. Fontenot said his office alone received thousands of calls of alleged contractor fraud in the months after the storm.
Brad Hassert, compliance director with the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, agreed.
“There’s too many cases; that’s my biggest challenge,” Hassert said.
For those hoping to go the civil route, the costs can be prohibitive and the compounding stress of dealing with finding new contractors and taking former ones to court is overwhelming.
“I just don’t have the energy,” Unson said. “I’m burned out.”
To combat the issue before another storm hits, the task force and other groups have increased their efforts to inform residents about the risk of contractor fraud and steps they can take to avoid it. The SWLA Law Center started a radio show out of Lafayette to spread the word. Other parishes across the state have formed task forces modeled after the one formed in Calcasieu after Laura, especially those that were hit by Ida the following year.
“We learned the hard way,” Fontenot said. “Hopefully, they won’t have to relearn that.”
In the meantime, it’s important the public do their part to protect themselves, said Hassert.
“Don’t pay ahead. Don’t fall for their story,” Hassert said. “It’s business and they really need to approach this as a business process.”
Hassert acknowledged that the lengthy recovery process and the displacement that follows a major storm like Laura is painful for those affected. But, he said, “people need to recognize that this takes time.”
That time can come at a cost. In January of last year, Unson’s 74-year-old mother succumbed to COVID-19, while the family was still in the RV. “I had to watch her die right there in that camper,” Unson said. “That eats at me every day.”
Two years after Laura, progress is finally being made on her 3-acre property. The concrete foundation needed to restore an addition to the house that was ripped off by the storm has been poured once again, a small step toward getting her house back in shape.
Surrounded by her three dogs, who have also shared the camper with the family, the 56-year-old said she is desperately hoping to return to some sense of normalcy.
“I can’t wait to cook again,” she said.
On an otherwise well-kept yard, water pools in scars left behind by unfinished construction. On the back of the property stands the RV in which Mary Ann Unson and her husband have been living for two years.