Build it right the first time

If you own a home in Texas, you should get to know Janet Ahmad. In 1978, following a bad experience with a home builder, she founded Home Owners for Better Building. That year HOBB came within one vote of passing a city ordinance that would have required home builders to be licensed. After a period of inactivity, in 1996 Janet revived the organization — which last Saturday led a March against KB Homes in the ongoing struggle to get them to address fundamental problems with the Mirasol housing development.

Ahmad has paid the price for being an outspoken critic. A recently concluded, six-year, Tarrant County trial found Janet innocent of making a false 911 call to report a bomb in an Arlington neighborhood built by KB Homes on a defunct bombing range, but guilty of a misdemeanor charge for possessing a hoax bomb.

On Saturday, March 8, I sat down at Bihl Haus Arts with Ahmad, whom I met a number of years ago when a group of neighbors and I, after a long and protracted battle, successfully stopped a development in our community.

You are being painted by your enemies as a loose cannon, an oddball, as someone who is nothing but a pain in the construction industry’s ass.

Well, that last one would be OK. That one I take pride in. `Laughs.`

From what I understand, in January 2002 you were a featured speaker at the University of Texas at Arlington and you were there to address homeowners’ concerns about ... a development that had been built on an old military practice bombing range used by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Then in August 2003 you were charged by the Tarrant County District Attorney for planting a bomb in that very same KB neighborhood. Those charges were later dropped. Is that accurate?

That is absolutely accurate. Yes. Of course, my first reaction when it happened was, how can you plant a bomb on a bombing range? This was, after all, just three months after 9-11, yet it took the District Attorney 18 months to bring those felony charges. Then many months later the charges were abruptly dropped and expunged from the records. KB Homes was certainly not discreet about spending a great deal of time and effort convincing the Tarrant County District Attorney to bring the baseless felony charges against me in the first place.

It’s now been over 7 years since KB Homes first vowed to inflict its powerful wrath and to maybe even put me behind bars. Make no mistake, KB was on a mission to silence its many critics. Before the Arlington charges, they sued me, the HOBB organization, and their own customers for $20 million, alleging that picketing constituted racketeering, of all things!

What about the so-called ‘hoax’ bomb? 

KB Homes gives a whole new meaning to “Home, Home on the Range.” Understand, they built over 600 homes on land peppered with military ordinance. Over the years thousands of bombs, including a 100-pound bomb, were recovered, many of which still had a potential threat of explosion. The Southridge Hill bombing range fiasco has been featured by Dallas-Fort Worth newspapers and TV news stations as well as 20/20 and 60 Minutes. It has cost taxpayers $2.6 million to clean up the bombs. But they could not remove those ordnances under the homes and underneath the concrete driveways and sidewalks.

Despite the persistence of KB, the Arlington Police Department investigator declined to prosecute me. But, somehow, in June 2004, they again convinced the District Attorney to bring totally different new misdemeanor charges accusing me of making a false 911 call and possession of a “hoax” bomb. At trial the Army Corp of Engineers and Arlington police officers testified of the many bombs recovered and that never had any hoax bombs recovered from the site. The jury found me innocent of a false 911 call, but guilty of possession of a “hoax” bomb. A hoax bomb, mind you, that doesn’t exist and was never presented at trial. Now, wouldn’t that confuse a jury? I still believe in the judicial system and still wonder how the disconnect happened with the jury. The case is currently on appeal.

Usually, I save the following question for the end. Janet, what do you want to say to Current readers and what do you hope they take away from this interview?

All I have ever wanted is for builders to build homes right the first time. To not cut corners. The question is, how do we do it when you have a very powerful industry that has been entrenched in the politics?

How do you do it?

It’s the voice of the little guy. They are the ones that inspire me. Just look at the people at Mirasol Homes. It’s voices like theirs that have given me inspiration. `Mirasol Homes` is a public-housing project here in San Antonio dogged with complaints of poor workmanship, cracked foundations, crooked door and window frames, and a number of other construction problems.`

How have they inspired you?

I don’t have to tell them what to say. I don’t have to coach them. All I had to do was give them the basics as to why they needed to have hope, number one, and that we could come up with a plan that was thinking outside the box. If we think in terms as we traditionally do I’m going to get the meanest, the baddest attorney I can find, and I am going to teach these guys a lesson. Well, you’re not going to do that. And the reason you’re not going to do that is because `developers and builders` have spent enough money to write the laws and when you file a lawsuit against them, the attorney that you hire, if you can find one any more, they have to represent you under the law. But those are the laws that the home builders wrote. They started writing them in the ’90s here in San Antonio. I’m speaking of San Antonio and Texas. They were also doing things up in Washington, DC. Now I realize we can’t regulate morality. But the people in Mirasol figured out they couldn’t get out of this mess. Those profiting from Mirasol were going to run over the top of them unless the residents were out there and made their voices heard.  It’s that voice. And we need to get those voices out there. Just when I think, ‘Oh, it’s dying down,’ the phone rings and I’ve got another victim out there. I always say, just when I think I’ve heard it all, the phone rings and it’s another KB Home owner. 

What does Mirasol symbolize to you?

Mirasol is a symptom of a lot of problems. One, the federal government. Federal money has been wasted. This stems from federal deregulation and inadequate enforcement of regulations by both local and federal governments. Two, the suppression of those who are in that program ... those people are stuck. Again, those who profited preyed on those who could least afford it. There is nothing wrong with corporations making a profit but not on the backs of those who can least afford it. We must understand what many experts have said about Mirasol. These houses are so bad that expensive repairs and high long-term maintenance will cost more than simply tearing them down and starting over. Some have said that we need to get on with fixing the problem and not fixing the blame. It is obvious that to fix the problem we must first recognize its origin. The fact of the matter is, the City of San Antonio is the root of the problem of the Mirasol/HUD project, and the incompetence of the Building Inspections Department was documented long before the Mirasol project received approval. `The San Antonio Housing Authority as well as HUD were warned of the problems they would encounter by depending on compliance with standards if they relied upon the shamefully inadequate City Building Inspections Department that has a long history of a 75-percent failure rate to perform all required inspections. 

I know that we’ve barely scratched the surface about Mirasol, the City, KB Homes, HUD, SAHA, the individual players, builders and developers, the skewed legal system, the tort-reform charade, the role of government and lack of oversight as well as other projects and entities ... What needs to be done?

We need to regulate builders. Right now builders don’t have to be licensed in Texas. We need a Lemon Law similar to the one that the auto industry implemented years ago.  And we need to ban mandatory binding arbitration in homebuilder contracts.  Arbitration is used by home builders to subvert consumer laws.  It takes away the homeowners constitutional right to sue their builder in court.  

The right to sue is really the only true insurance the consumer has, right?

Yes. But there is hope for tomorrow. I think we are going to pass the bill in Washington that stops the abuses of binding arbitration by the building industry. We are going to see a change in Austin because the people from Mirasol are going to be going up to Austin for subcommittee hearings throughout the summer. There is going to be a review of the Texas Residential Construction Commission. It is going to be a sunset review and we hope that the sun will set on that Commission. That Commission was designed to regulate the buyer. The home builder is still not regulated. Until we regulate them, and I believe that day is coming, nothing can happen. In 2007 we had the first Lemon Law debated in the nation on the Texas House floor. And it was exciting. It’s on our web site ``. So I’m excited about what will come and maybe my job will soon become obsolete.

Who else can people turn to?

It’s sad. Why am I the first one in San Antonio that homeowners turn to? And our organization? Where is the City in all of this? They should be the first ones that we can turn to for effective help and to hold builders and developers accountable.  But right now it’s just the opposite.