Metro Louisville

There’s a green and white two-bedroom home that sits empty in the city’s Park Hill neighborhood, west of Old Louisville. A screened-in porch leads you inside. Past the living room is a dining area, which branches off to all the other parts of the house. The ceilings are water-damaged — so badly, in some rooms, that there are chunks missing from the drywall. Mold plagues the home like ivy creeping up the corners. 

corner of a room with ripped wallpaper and moldy wallsJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Mold covers the walls of a bedroom in Kelly’s house on Nov. 23, 2021.

Charles Kelly, 81, owns that home. But, because of the health risks, he hasn’t stayed there in months. In June 2020, his daughter Dedre helped him apply for Louisville Metro’s Home Repair Program. Their goal was to make the house livable again, but they needed financial help.

Every year, Louisville Metro Government gets millions of dollars in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to help low- and moderate-income residents with home repairs through four programs. The city’s stated end goal is to provide safe and stable living conditions. But some recipients worry that’s not happening.

When someone, like Charles Kelly, applies for assistance through the Home Repair Program, they are sorted into one of four categories:

  • Regular Home Repair Program: accessible metro-wide and covers things including HVAC, plumbing and roof replacement.
  • At-Risk Home Repair Program: like the regular program, but limited to applicants in the Algonquin, California, Chickasaw, Hallmark, Park DuValle, Parkland, Park Hill, Portland, Shawnee, Shelby Park and Smoketown neighborhoods.
  • Russell Rental Rehab Program: similar to the above two, but focused on rental units and single-family homes in the Russell neighborhood.
  • Exterior Code Alleviation Program: minor to moderate external repairs, like exterior paint and siding, to get properties up to code.

Kelly was assigned to the at-risk program. It picks applicants from eligible neighborhoods each year, and covers about $25,000 worth of repairs for each of them. Applications are reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis, so time is of the essence.

Dedre said getting into the program was a complicated, lengthy process to navigate — something her elderly father couldn’t do alone. There were many steps, from printing out paperwork, to gathering important tax documents, a copy of the mortgage statement and insurance information. 

“He had to get the deed for the house, we had to make sure that who was on the deed was the rightful person that was in the house. And so we did a lot of that going back and forth,” she said.

Dedre said the application and approval process took about half a year. Then the family waited another few months before a city representative came to check out the house. 

Water damaged walls and deteriorating drywall hanging from Kelly's ceiling.J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Water-stained and drywall hangs from the ceiling of another bedroom in Kelly’s house on Nov. 23, 2021.

Repairs on the house started in August of this year. According to the contract, the work was supposed to be done by early September, but it’s still underway. Charles Kelly, the homeowner, said there were repeated miscommunications about when workers would come by.

“They called, telling me that they’re going to be here…and then they don’t show up. So, I’m here all day waiting on them,” Charles said. 

How it works

When the city admits someone into the home repair assistance program, a government inspector arranges a walkthrough of the home to assess what’s needed.

“They started from outside of the house, coming in and telling us that he needed a railing for his steps. His steps coming up from the sidewalk weren’t level, they said they were gonna fix that,” Dedre said. 

The steps and railing in front of Kelly's house, and cracked sidewalk. J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

The railing and front steps that lead to Kelly’s front door on Nov. 23, 2021.

Inside, there were problems that posed both structural and health risks.

“Once they got into the house, then that’s when we showed them all the work that needed to be done,” Dedre said. The family asked them to repair the leaky roof, water-damaged ceilings and walls — and mitigate a mold infestation.

“I [said to the inspector], look, we’re dealing with black mold. I showed him on the walls where I saw the black mold, visually, I can see it. He said, ’We don’t do mold removal,’” Dedre said. “My father started staying over to his girlfriend’s house because he could breathe better when he was away from here.”

Marilyn Harris is director of Louisville Metro’s Office of Housing, which oversees the Home Repair Program. She said the funding does cover mold remediation and removal. But the city calls on environmental experts to inspect the area in question before deciding on which course of action to take.

“Sometimes you have mold that is not mold, it is mildew. And sometimes you have mold that is mold. Many times just by looking at it, you can’t tell whether it’s black mold, or just mildew. And so we call in specialists to make that determination,” Harris said. 

Mildew is mold in its early stages, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency brochure on home flood recovery. 

Despite the mold — and before any testing was performed on it — contractors started redoing parts of the drywall in Kelly’s dining room in late summer and, within weeks, the painted-over areas were already water-stained.

partially repaired wall and old wallpaper both show water damagedJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Old wallpaper and the recent drywall work in Kelly’s dining room both show signs of water damage on Nov. 23, 2021.

Mold mitigation

In mid-September, Kelly’s home underwent an initial mold inspection. The tests showed high spore counts in the dining area and one of the bedrooms. The results also suggested outlined mold remediation should be carried out by certified specialists and the areas should be re-tested afterward.   

A few days after that first inspection, the contractor requested Kelly sign off on a partial payment to cover a short list of repairs — nearly $21,000 of the total $24,000 the program allotted. The payment request outlined specific jobs: fresh gutters, a new water heater and the replacement of most of the drywall. It also listed the roof work.

“We would only be paying for work that was actually done,” Harris said. “We would never in any circumstance pay for work that was going to be done.”

In a late September letter, city officials said Charles Kelly “refuses to accept the completed work…and refuses to sign documentation for a partial payment request.” It said Kelly had expressed he wasn’t satisfied with the job done and acknowledged there was incomplete work as well as concerns about potential mold. The city’s inspector and another official both signed paperwork approving the state of repairs anyway.

Harris, with the Office of Housing, said a city inspector checks in with residents throughout the process and does a final walk through after contractors wrap up repairs.

“An inspector will go out and verify and make sure that everything that was in the work write-up that we agreed to and that we are paying for is done and completed in an acceptable manner and up to code,” Harris said. 

Mold creeping up the corners of a room in Kelly's house like ivy.J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Mold in Kelly’s bedroom on Nov. 23, 2021.

There are different ways city contractors might tackle mold, from tearing down walls and the structure within to spraying it with a bleach solution along with what Harris described as “a paint mixture that has a sealant in it that will encapsulate the dry, dead mold.”

But the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t recommend this spray-and-seal approach as a long-term solution because it doesn’t kill the spores, just keeps them contained — if, and only if, the moisture is eliminated. 

The Kelly family said spray-and-seal, the process the EPA does not recommend, is what the city-contracted workers are doing at the house. And they’re doing that without resolving the source of the moisture: a leaky roof that contractors didn’t fully replace. Instead, they added a new layer of shingles on top. 

Multiple containers arranged to collect water under a leaky roofJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Buckets and bottles with the tops cut out arranged under Kelly’s roof on Nov. 23, 2021.

“It is not a violation of any code to put a second layer of roof on over,” Harris said. “If the substrate — the plywood underneath — is sturdy but moist at the time that… it’s wet and the inspection identifies it can dry out and be okay, that is a perfectly normal process.”

But Kelly’s daughter, Dedre, said the work contractors did on the roof was insufficient. The roof’s frame is deteriorating and the new external layer is incomplete, she said.

“It’s no good. If you put that on some wood that has been rotting, rotting from rain, you know, over a period of time, this all needed to be replaced,” Dedre said. “They did not do anything but a patch-over. That’s all that was: a patch-over.”

The roof has gaps in several areas where outside air blows in — and where the family feared water would continue to seep through. 

Gaps in the roof surrounding a pipe. Roof is also missing a 2x4J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Gaps in the roof surrounding a pipe on Nov. 23, 2021.

Not the first time

Charles Kelly’s experience isn’t isolated. About 10 years ago, the city helped Tuajuana Bowens with her repairs on her home in the Chickasaw neighborhood. Bowens said they paid for roof work to divert the flow of water and protect against leaks, but it failed just two years later.

“It’s leaking now. I have water leaks all up on the ceiling upstairs…it shouldn’t be leaking,” Bowens said. 

She said contractors also re-insulated some walls, but intended to leave before seeing the repairs through. 

“They were telling me they were not going to paint…they said ‘We can leave you a five-gallon bucket of paint,’” Bowens said. “I was a single parent. I was here by myself. So, no, you cannot just leave me a five-gallon bucket of paint.”

The contracting group that worked on Bowens’ house back in 2011 — ABN Restoration Inc. — is the same one tasked with fixing Kelly’s house now. 

“No one is keeping up with what’s actually going on with the city. But that’s government money. That they are just, you know no one’s really keeping track of it,” Bowens said.

There’s a city-run website called Louisville Checkbook. It claims it’s updated weekly and that it’s “your source for seeing how the city spends your money.” According to data on that website, Louisville Metro Government contracted the majority of home repairs out to ABN in the fiscal years ending in June 2020 and 2021. During the latter, the company raked in about $208,000 out of the $288,000 the city spent on home repairs, per the Louisville Checkbook website. 

Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson with the Metro Office of Housing, said that amount doesn’t include any of the expenditures for the city’s Home Repair Programs. The Metro-powered website touting transparency in government spending doesn’t mention those programs.

Bowling added data from the Metro Office of Housing differs, and that the at-risk program’s total budget is actually $1.75 million. Bowling also confirmed that ABN is one of two companies that has received the most contracts. In fiscal year 2021, ABN has been paid more than $1.2 million of the $2.8 million the city spent on all home repairs — including the at-risk, regular, Russell rental and exterior code alleviation programs.  

ABN’s owner did not respond to requests for comment.

Walkway from Charles Kelly's living room to the dining room, where tarps cover furnitureJ. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Charles Kelly and his nephew, Garry Irvin, stand in the walkway between the living and dining rooms on Nov. 23, 2021.

“How many elderly people are they doing this to? That, they’re getting this government funding and not doing the job?” Kelly’s nephew, Garry Irvin said. 

His uncle is already facing pressure to sell the house to developers, he added. 

“They just called him the other day and sent him a letter about buying his house,” Irvin said.

Charles Kelly said he’s not willing to give up his home. Entering the program, he was relying on the city’s commitment to quality work. But now Kelly is concerned the superficial repairs won’t hold up — and worries about the price he’ll have to pay when that time comes. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of people that the home repair program serves. 

The story was also updated to clarify details of the city’s home repair program and more complete budget information.

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.