Soiled Hands

It's no surprise that builders take shortcuts to make money. What might shock you: Government officials -- from regulators to legislators -- do little to stop them

(Wilhelm initially consented to an interview, then canceled 30 minutes before it was set to begin. She then didn't respond to repeated messages attempting to reschedule.)

To builders, the Legislature matters. More than the federal government, and at times, more than its counterparts on the municipal level.

Ultimately, cities have power over the details of new construction: How many homes can go on any given acreage, and which set of standards they must follow. (See "Through the Cracks.")

State Senator Barbara Leff
courtesy of Barbara Leff
State Senator Barbara Leff
Governor Janet Napolitano
Peter Scanlon
Governor Janet Napolitano

But the bigger picture is drawn by state decision-makers.

Highways must be built, and then expanded, to open new areas to construction. State regulators must bless all new developments, too, deeming that enough water's on tap to serve them for 100 years.

The state, too, sets the rules governing consumer protection. The Arizona Department of Real Estate supervises the soil reports that developers must commission before building new homes.

And the Arizona Registrar of Contractors licenses both builders and the subcontractors who work beneath them. The agency also enforces workmanship standards: Build a bad enough house, and your company can lose its state license.

The builders pay close attention to both agencies. (More on that later.)

In the last decade, they've also been consumed with another effort: Getting special protection that makes it harder for homeowners to sue them.

On this front, they haven't needed to work through agencies. They've been able to get exactly what they want from their pals in the Legislature -- sometimes the same people who've directly benefited from their donations.


• In the '90s, the legislature passed a bill requiring homeowners to get testimony from experts before they could sue "licensed professionals," like builders and architects.

• The Arizona Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997, but the Legislature passed a new, less restrictive version two years later. It has withstood court scrutiny. (The 1999 law specifically did not apply to physicians. A bill giving them similar protections went down to defeat.)

• In 2002, Governor Janet Napolitano signed into a law a bill requiring homeowners to notify their builders in writing before filing suit. The bill gives the builder nearly three months to fix everything before the homeowner can file -- no matter how long they've already been in negotiations.

States like California and Nevada have well-organized lobbies to protect consumer interests. Those groups almost certainly would have opposed new laws like the ones in Arizona.

But no groups in Arizona are focused on lobbying for homebuyers here.

Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, the national group known as HADD, has representatives in Arizona. But while members in Texas, for example, fight loudly for consumers at the state level, and a few are even plugged into party politics, that's not true in Arizona.

Most HADD members seem to join the group after their own battles. At least two local HADD representatives have lost houses to foreclosure. They say that the exhaustion of their own battles left them too beleaguered to take on state government.

And so for the most part, the restrictions on lawsuits sailed through quietly, without organized opposition.

Take, for example, a key legislative hearing in March 2002. The Arizona House's committee on commerce and economic development was considering the bill that would force homeowners to wait, and give builders a final chance to make repairs, before suing.

A dozen homeowners spoke against the bill, according to committee minutes. They told of their experiences, their battles with builders, the fact that waiting three more months would only make things harder for homeowners who are already outmatched and running out of cash.

But more than twice that number -- builders, lobbyists, and their allies -- spoke in favor of it.

And the second group had much closer connections to the representatives on the committee.

In the two years before the meeting, the lobbyists and builders at the meeting alone had donated $4,681 to committee members.

In the next four years, they'd shell out another $5,563 to those same committee members -- with $2,587 going to the coffers of now State Senator Barbara Leff (R-Paradise Valley), who chaired the meeting.

Those numbers don't include the $49,750 that the builders' lobby gave to the state political parties during that period. Nor do they include the $3,940 that builders have donated since 2000 to John Nelson (R-Glendale), the bill's sponsor.

As for those dozen homeowners who opposed the bill? None of them had donated a buck.

The sole professional lobbyist who opposed the bill, who was there representing a homeowners association, had donated money to various pols, but not to anyone at the meeting, according to records.

"It was like going to a trial where the jury had already made up its mind," says Mike Schofield, a Gilbert resident and HADD member who attended the meeting.

"It was just worthless for us to even be there."

The problems in Melinda Westcott's house began with the soil. Specifically, they began with expansive soils, which swell when they get wet.

The swelling can cause terrible damage to the slab of concrete and house on top of it. As the soil expands, it pushes its way up, cracking the concrete. And then, as the concrete settles and shifts, the walls crack.

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