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Efforts to get rebuilding monies to Western Mass. tornado victims stall

Posted by Rachel Roberts  November 17, 2011 09:02 AM

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On Aug. 4, the Patrick-Murray administration announced more than $8 million to help building owners affected by the series of June 1 tornadoes rebuild in an energy-efficient manner, but requirements set by participating banks including minimum qualifications for income ratio and credit score will undoubtedly restrict the number of applicants approved.

As of Nov. 14, only one of the 68 active applications have been approved for the ReBuild Western Mass. program, according Catherine Williams, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy Resources (DOER). Funding and zero-interest loan availability was announced Sept. 26, while individuals who called to apply were assigned a case manager from ICF international, the program's administrative vendor.

"Funding for [ReBuild Western Mass.] has been available since September," said Williams. "The application process began in September and continued with the publication of the online application on November 1."

While account managers for ICF international determine eligible incentives, approved applicants are not guaranteed the monies reserved for their case, as Monson Savings Bank and Country Bank ultimately decide whether applicants will be approved for their zero-interest loans.

For Brad Richardson, keeping up with the status of the program has become a second job since the tornado caused about $150,000 worth of property damage to his home on Bethany Road in Monson. When he saw a flyer outlining ReBuild Western Mass., he inquired about it through the Center for EcoTechnology, a company contracted to perform the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) audit necessary for determining homeowner eligibility for the program's grant and loan incentives.

"In [August] I looked into the program, saw that I was eligible and it seemed like a really good thing," said Richardson. "I was asking the [Center for EcoTechnology] questions and they really didn’t have any information."

The lack of information available soon became a pattern for Richardson, who paid for his HERS reading in September, but was still waiting to move forward with the program at the end of October because the application for ReBuild Western Mass. was not available on the DOER website. After multiple phone calls to DOER, ICF and state Rep. Brian Ashe, Richardson contacted the office of Governor Deval Patrick in search of some answers.

"The average person would not do what I'm doing," said Richardson. "It seems to me they are trying to make this [process] as difficult as possible so people don't apply."

Once the application was made available on the website Nov. 1, the program's original Frequently Asked Questions guide that said funds for loans would be available beginning in September were altered to say November. According to the application, those looking to apply for the program must prequalify for incentives by Feb. 15, while repairs, construction and insulation must be completed by April 30. Incentives are not retroactively available for individuals who have completed rebuilding, so if homeowners have already invested the funds necessary to rebuild in an energy-efficient manner in more than five months since the tornadoes struck, they are ineligible for the program.

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In a letter dated Nov. 10 ICF case manager Justin Lawson informed Richardson that $30,000 has been reserved for his construction project, but Richardson says he was also previously informed he would be eligible for a post-construction grant of $8,000. Account manager Ian Buba has told him eligibility is for either the grant or the loan, not both. Now, he faces the prospect of paying $22,000 out-of-pocket for the installation of an energy-efficient heating system and insulation necessary to qualify for a post-construction grant intended to make rebuilding easier.

"I asked [Buba] to give me one logical reason why it would make sense [that] you wouldn’t be able to get the loan and then apply for the grant and he couldn't give me one," Richardson said.

Richardson has already paid $3,000 out of pocket for double-pane, energy star rating Pella windows, a small portion of the roughly $30,000 gap between total property damage and the claims money approved by his Preferred Mutual insurance company. On Nov. 14 Richardson went to Monson Savings Bank, where he has been a customer for twenty years, to inquire about qualifications for their zero-interest construction loan. He just barely missed their minimum requirement of a 700 credit score.

"The fact that it's very difficult to get a loan, especially for [$30,000] must really limit the amount of people who can even qualify for the program," said Richardson. "If people can't get a loan, they're not going to have the money up front to rebuild [energy-efficiently] and get the post-construction grant."

The Mass. Save HEAT Loan Program, which also provides customers the opportunity to apply for a zero-interest loan, only requires a 650 credit score. Country Bank, the other participating bank with ReBuild Western Mass., requires a minimum 680 credit score.

“Not everyone is going to be eligible for [ReBuild Western Mass.] because of their income level or financial history," said Richardson. "The tornado didn’t discriminate who’s house got hit, the state and the bank shouldn’t discriminate who gets the rebuilding loan.”

Now, nearly four months since the program was announced, Richardson wishes he had never heard of it. Even if he is approved for the $30,000 loan, the subsequent lien put on his tornado-ravaged home as well as future communication with the parties involved may only bring more headaches.

Photos courtesy of Brad Richardson

Rachel Roberts can be reached at rachelroberts90@gmail.com

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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