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USDA 504 Grant Program

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LITTLE ROCK -

The USDA has a program for low income seniors that helps fix up their homes.

Qualifying homeowners can get a grant of up to $7,500.00  

But there are strings attached.

When you pick a contractor you generally want two things: somebody qualified and somebody local.

One Arkansas homeowner says the USDA doesn't make either goal easy.

82 year-old Ruby Pickens of Magnolia was excited last year to get a USDA "504 grant" to improve her home.

"Because I want to at least enjoy two or three more years…in my house," says Pickens.

Ruby has problems with the job…that is why she called Seven-On-Your-Side.  

But she also has problems with the way the USDA handled her loan.

First of all, Ms. Pickens had to pick a contractor from a list provided by the USDA.

Of the 20 contractors on the list, only two were from Columbia County.  Another four were from Camden, about 30 miles away.  But the rest were located 60 to 120 miles away…hardly local.

But were they qualified?

We shared the list of 20 contractors with the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board.

We were told 16 were "not in the system."

At least four of the contractors on the USDA's list were no longer in business:  two because they retired and two because they are dead.

Up until this year a contractor who did home remodeling did not need a license.  

Ms. Pickens says the USDA could have and should have required one anyway in order to protect homeowners.

"I picked him because I said well I know he'll do me a good job," says Pickens.   "And this is what I got."

Pickens says the front of her house and the back of her house are a different shade of green.

Plus plenty of paint was spilled on her car port and elsewhere.

She says the paint job inside her home is also unacceptable, with outlet covers painted over and paint on light fixtures.

"He installed a hand rail and it was shaking," says Pickens.  "Now for a handicapped person and something is shaking…that ain't right."

Two USDA inspectors visited Ruby's home on the same day we were there to determine if her complaints have merit.

We used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain "504 grant" files for seven south Arkansas homeowners.  The files were heavily redacted.

In one case an 80 year-old Camden homeowner complained that three months after her USDA contractor left the "…carpet was unraveling, it was leaking under the sink again and the patio doors won't open correctly."

The USDA told her to write the contractor a letter.

In another case a Fordyce homeowner claimed her USDA contractor had failed to finish the job.

She was told that the USDA had "no additional course of action" and that she "may need to think about legal options."

In our review of the cases provided, the USDA signatures most commonly seen on documents are Area Specialists Larry Kindle, Marissa Harris and Elizabeth Cox.

Last week we asked the USDA if we could interview an agency representative or state director Lawrence McCollough.  

At the agency's request, a list of questions was submitted in advance.

So far no one has been available.

Ms. Pickens says neither is her contractor.

"He don't answer my calls," says Pickens.  "They write a letter and tell him. And when they wrote this letter…when I called him when I got out of the hospital I told him…he said well I didn't get the letter. I said well I know you must have because this is a copy. And I got it.  Why did it come to this? Because I am…tired."

You saw that USDA inspectors were at Ms. Ruby's home to review the repair work that was done.  One of our written questions was…what were their findings?  The USDA says it will provide written responses to our questions next week.

Air date:  November 14th, 2012