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Fuller Center president says offer to rebuild Suffolk home ‘atypical’

The president of the Fuller Center for Housing, Inc. said Wednesday the organization will want to break ties with its local affiliate if allegations made in a lawsuit filed last month are true.

“If the allegations are true, it’s not the way that we operate, and we would want to separate,” David Snell said. However, he hopes to see an agreement reached out of court in the lawsuit, filed by homeowners Brian and Charity Milless against the Fuller Center for Housing Suffolk, an affiliate of the national organization.

When a tornado destroyed the Millesses’s house on April 28, 2008, the couple began sifting through the remains and trying to salvage their belongings.

It was while they were doing so that their nightmare began. Even though a local organization offered to rebuild their home by November 2008, they still are living in rental housing and the construction job at the partially rebuilt home has been deemed poor and haphazard.

The tornado that damaged and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses in Suffolk tore apart the Millesses’s house on Burnett’s Court. Two days later, they were at the house trying to rescue belongings when Angela Koncz, director of the Fuller Center for Housing Suffolk, approached them with a group of volunteers, offering help sifting through the rubble, according to a lawsuit filed in Circuit Court last month.

The couple accepted the offer of help, as well as a second offer the next day for Koncz to use demolition equipment to help with the demolition of the remains of the home.

Before demolition commenced, however, Koncz again approached the couple while standing in the street in front of the house and said, “I’m going to try not to cry when I ask you this. We would like to rebuild your house for free.”

The couple cried and hugged Koncz, and told her they would talk to each other and then communicate further with Koncz. However, they later informed her that they would be receiving insurance payouts from their homeowner’s insurance, and would not need the house to be rebuilt for free. Koncz then proposed, on behalf of the Fuller Center, to construct a house on the property. The Millesses knew nothing of the Fuller Center besides what Koncz told them, which was that it is a “Christianity-focused charitable organization committed to meeting housing needs.”

About three weeks after the tornado, Koncz presented the Millesses with a proposed “agreement between owner and contractor.” All parties signed the document, but the Fuller Center for Housing Suffolk does not hold a general contractor’s license in Virginia, according to the suit. Koncz supplied the couple with a Class B contractor license under the name Building Suffolk, Inc., which Koncz said was an older name for Welcome Home Community Development Corporation, which she said was affiliated with and entitled to trade as Fuller Center for Housing.

After the agreement was signed, the couple and Koncz opened a checking account at a local branch of a national bank, where a bank employee notarized the agreement and set up the account to require only one signature, although the agreement stated that it would require two signatures.

The Millesses received a checkbook and debit card for the account, which was registered at their address. They did not know until later, however, that Koncz had obtained a debit card on the account and changed the account address to her address on Brewer Avenue without the knowledge or consent of the Millesses.

In May, Farmers Insurance issued checks totaling more than $149,000 as partial payment for the loss of the home, shed and fence on the property. Between June and October 2008, Koncz issued checks and made debit card transactions, ostensibly for reconstruction, totaling about $70,000. By the last week of October, Koncz was pressing the Millesses to obtain more money from their insurance company or elsewhere to continue reconstruction, and did not respond to concerns about the expenditure of the money and the pace, progress and quality of the work, the complaint says.

In October, Brian Milless received a check for more than $28,000 from additional insurance money, but did not deposit the check because of his continued concerns about Koncz’s spending money.

On Nov. 3, without consent of the Millesses, Koncz herself asked for more money from Farmers Insurance and Wells Fargo in a five-page missive, where she misrepresented the amount of money spent and progress of construction, according to the lawsuit.

By Nov. 18, the account balance was below $5, and Koncz filed a mechanic’s lien on the property, and no work has been performed on the property since.

On Wednesday, commercial homebuilding wrap flapped in the breeze at the house, and foliage in the front yard measured more than two feet high in some places. Other homes on the street are mostly rebuilt from the damage the tornado caused.

The Millesses are requesting $375,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, the removal of the mechanic’s lien and attorney’s fees. In the suit, Koncz, the Fuller Center for Housing Suffolk, Fuller Center for Housing Inc., and Welcome Home Community Development Corporation are named as defendants, and accused of breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty.

“Upon information and belief, Defendants used money deposited in the SunTrust Account for their own purposes,” the suit charges.

The couple’s lawyers, Alex T. Mayo Jr. and Scott J. Flax, with the Norfolk firm of Tavss Fletcher, did not respond to a message left at their office. Koncz did not return two phone messages left at her home.

Glenn C. Otto, a structural engineer, inspected the home and noted 26 violations of building codes and accepted construction standards.

“Overall, the construction is poor and appears lead by someone who has not finished his or her apprenticeship,” he stated in a letter attached to the suit as an exhibit. “The detail work in the carpentry is below Code and industry standards. The workmanships and Code violations occur everywhere from top to bottom. Attempting to fix the identified problems would result in an even worse looking and ill-fitted patchwork. In my experience, it is sometimes cheaper to start over than to do the ‘surgery’ required to correct the deficiencies.”

Otto noted that costs to repair the house could run close to $100,000, and would result in an awkward floor plan that “could be difficult to market in the future.”

“I recommend starting from scratch,” he concluded.

David Snell, president of the Fuller Center for Housing, said the organization first knew of a problem last fall, but was not able to resolve it because the affiliate organizations act independently.

“We tried to get the local group there in Suffolk to mediate this or to resolve it,” he said. “We learned about it, but there wasn’t a whole lot we could do.”

Snell said the project was not a typical one for Fuller Center to become involved in, as the organization usually helps families who have no insurance, access to lenders or other means of buying, building or rebuilding a house.

“It’s a tragic situation,” he said. “Our goal is for everyone to have a decent place to live so when someone doesn’t, it’s a sadness.”

“We feel just awful about it. We feel bad for the family.”

After noting that he would encourage the parties to mediate the agreement out of court, he said he will want to separate from the Suffolk affiliate if the allegations are true.

“We’ll watch and see how it all shakes out and what the facts end up really being and make a determination at that time.”