COVID, turnover plagues ill-timed construction of Mountainlands group of homes built in part by owners

Chelsea Gallant stands in her Park City home. Though grateful, she is disappointed with aspects of the self-help program process as it was conducted by Mountainlands.
David Jackson/Park Record

Mountainlands Community Housing Trust didn’t anticipate Group 22’s experience with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s self-help program to be vastly different from any of the other groups the trust has helped through the home-building program over the years.

It wasn’t an unusual agreement. The department provides grants to groups like Mountainlands to “help them carry out local self-help housing construction projects.”

The idea is that with the government grant, grit and elbow grease, families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford houses can help construct their own through providing the labor themselves “with technical assistance from the organization overseeing the project.”

According to Mountainlands, the organization has participated in the program for more than two decades and has helped just shy of 170 families get into homes. 

But as Group 22 members look back on their experience, at least some don’t do so fondly.

Chelsea Gallant said the process had robbed her of the thrill she expected as a first-time homeowner.

Mark and Shauna Bevans were unhappy with dead sod that sat next to their lot for weeks. Back when it was living, they said, they weren’t never notified of when it would be dropped off and how to lay it.

And Lenka Kubina, who was kicked out of the program with her husband, Ales, said there’s not much Mountainlands could do now to make up for it.

Addressing the worries raised by individuals who paid far less than market rate for homes in Park City, Mountainlands representatives explained the situation had plenty of challenges. 

Board of Trustees President Bob Richer and current Executive Director Scott Loomis, were reluctant to place blame or to bring specific names into the conversation. Without passing the buck firmly to one individual or another, they acknowledged problems had happened. Mistakes had been made, projects delayed, and relationships with builders bruised.

Yet, as they delved into the issues regarding Group 22, a deeper and more complex story unraveled, highlighting their hesitancy in pointing fingers or naming any incident as the damning moment that left future homeowners at odds with those building their homes.

The COVID-19 pandemic, turnover in Mountainlands’ leadership, difficulties with clients and typical setbacks that come with any construction project all combined in a sort of perfect storm of challenges.

Complicating things further, Loomis had retired in 2021 after two decades as the executive director for a hopeful, and two other executive directors who resigned — Pat Matheson and David Levine — oversaw the project during the difficuties.

Loomis started with Mountainlands when the trust was fairly small and has been involved in the implementation of all of its programs.

He had worked as a lawyer in Arizona before he moved to Utah. After his brother died, him and his wife adopted their 11-year-old nephew and decided Park City would be a great place to raise him.

Retired from his previous career, he found skiing and playing golf could only hold his attention for so long. That’s when he got involved in the nonprofit housing trust.

“With a kid in school we weren’t going to travel and do all the things we wanted to. We weren’t going to go to Tuscon in the summer when he was off,” Loomis said. “I heard about it and didn’t know much about what the job was and, in fact, there wasn’t a whole lot going on when I started, but it was a challenge of the kind of things I like to do.”

When he left in 2021, he said he and the board trusted the director he had trained to take the position would fill his huge shoes.

Instead, they found there is only one Loomis. His predecessor, he said, made management and financial decisions he wouldn’t have and two executive directors and two years after his attempted retirement, he is back with Mountainlands serving as an interim director.

“The last two years have seen an environment of unprecedented challenges and mistakes were made,” Richer said in a statement. “Some of those who we created housing for did not have an A+ experience and we are deeply sorry. … One should always strive to learn from mistakes and strive to do better. We have and will continue to embrace these challenges by improving our management, our staff and our financial controls and systems.”

The Kubinas’ participation in Group 22 was the second time the couple had participated in the self-help program.

In 2005, they first worked with Mountainlands to build a home, and Lenka described the process as nearly flawless.

This time, she said, was different.

She explained how the participants who had planned to labor on their homes were left relatively idle while it seemed little work was being accomplished.

“When COVID struck there were restrictions, concerns, and Summit County regulations about gathering which caused delays and overlapping of multiple Self Help groups,” Mountainlands said. “In cooperation with USDA, MCHT limited volunteer activities and reduced the work hour requirement by half … Also, material supply issues caused delays that were a direct result of COVID restrictions and illness at the supplier level.”

Lenka described how she and Ales grew concerned about the flat roofs of the designs as she noticed water pooling weeks after snow or rain had fallen.

“MCHT redesigned and re-engineered the roofs in consultation with some of the program participants, spending $341,160 to fix the problem and other minor issues,” Mountainlands officials said.

After the roofs were redesigned and rebuilt, the dryer vents did not lead outside but to the attic, Lenka said.

Mountainlands officials said the issue was a simple oversight, one that didn’t stop a Summit County building inspector from issuing certificates of occupancy. 

“Once the issue was discovered, Mountainlands contacted the HVAC installer, and he immediately fixed the problem,” Mountainlands officials said.

Lenka said she was worried the subcontractors may have been found through nepotism rather than qualifications. 

Loomis said it was difficult then to find any contractors available for anything.

“Usually you call them and say, ‘Oh, we’re a day or two out, we’ll get there,'” he said. “This time it was like, ‘I can’t tell you when I’m going to get there. I’ve got so much work, I can’t get there.’ The excavator, the framer, whatever. Everything just took forever and was expensive.”

To make things harder for the Mountainlands while they tried to accomplish the project, Loomis said, a few group members began going through every bill, scrupulously eyeing everything and spreading their skepticism of Mountainlands officials to other participants. Conflict mounted.

“I think a lot of it was attitude,” Loomis said. 

Eventually, the Kubinas were removed from the project to finish their home outside the program after a confrontation with a subcontractor, the details of which the Kubinas disputed with the Department of Agriculture.

The Kubinas’ absence from the group made some feel they had lost an advocate. Ales, having been involved in construction projects before, had been the one to notice several of the issues later addressed by Mountainlands.

Eventually, after remaining program members moved into their homes, sod was dropped off for them to plant.

Greg Hatcher, a housing consultant with Mountainlands, said he informed homeowners of when the grass would be dropped off and a subcontractor said they gave the appropriate instruction.

Homeowners negate both claims. After some back and forth, rural development mediator Nancy Jacobsen stepped in.

“The landscaping situation kind of just … fell apart,” she said as she recalled the messy situation. “I did make phone calls and connected with the gentleman at Mountainlands that was supposedly coordinating and telling them when things were going to be delivered, and then the families said well we didn’t hear from them.”

Going above her normal role, she said, she reached out to the landscaper.

“There was a confusion whether he really indeed had talked to them and told them and made arrangements and made himself available,” she said. “He claims he did, so it’s kind of one of those he-said-she-said things as far as I can tell. It’s really unfortunate. … I don’t know an answer.”

Eventually, the Department of Agriculture informed homeowners if they didn’t use the sod and other materials provided, they were on their own.

“Mountainlands has provided, as agreed, the trees, bushes, topsoil, grass, and sprinklers,” USDA official Larinda Jorgensen wrote in an email. “It was each homeowner’s responsibility to provide the labor. … Please note: you are part of an HOA and if the landscape is not installed, and complete you will be subject to HOA violations.”

Homeowners said they eventually reached into their own pockets to cover expenses for projects they thought would be included in the program.

They also expressed concern over smaller issues they noticed after inspecting some of the subcontractors’ work — boot prints in the cement of a garage floor, a porch step jerry-rigged to pass inspection, portions of a driveway already crumbling possibly because it was poured at the incorrect temperature. As part of the self-help program, they weren’t given the subcontractors’ information until after the homes received certificates of occupancy, long after most payments had been made.

“I want MCHT to complete their promise to finish my home,” Gallant said in an email to The Park Record. “I still have a broken window, incomplete landscaping, a garage floor falling apart and other small itmes they agreed to complete. I shouldn’t have to beg.”

In their future self-help projects, she said she hopes a third party will coordinate communication between the nonprofit and homebuilders.

And while their concerns didn’t fall on deaf ears, Mountainlands officials noted they forgave thousands and thousands of dollars in loans devoted to the project to ensure its completion, taking losses themselves.

Loomis said his absence left him and the board of directors with new insights for when the next director is hired.

“We are going to recover a lot fo the funds that were spent and be back to where we were before and with several million dollars to use for development,” he said. “Whoever we hire … the board is going have a lot more oversight because they’ve learned a lot, and I’m going to stay involved particularly in the financial part.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story erroneously said two executive directors were dismissed. Mountainlands in each case accepted their resignations. We regret the error.

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