WILKES-BARRE — Everyone was all smiles in November 2009, when Wyoming Valley Habitat for Humanity turned a renovated doctor’s office building on Stanton Street over to its new owners, John and Tawana Simpson.
Less than four years later, the Simpsons’ American Dream has taken a turn for the worse, leaving neighbors questioning whether the home is being used for the purpose for which it was intended.
John Simpson is serving a one-to-two year Luzerne County prison sentence in connection with drug charges, according to court records. And neighbors believe Tawana Simpson may now be living somewhere else and renting out the property at 171 Stanton St.
Habitat officials say they cannot discuss individual cases, but acknowledge that their policy prohibits homeowners from leasing Habitat homes while they are paying off their mortgages.
“Our biggest concern now is that the family has moved out and is now renting the house out to multiple people,” said Eric Schaffer, who lives across the street. “I know this because the one older man staying there told us this.”
A Times Leader reporter visited the property three times in the past three weeks. The Simpsons’ names were still listed on the mailbox, along with two separate pieces of paper bearing the names of people with two other last names.
A man who answered the back door during the first visit declined to speak with a reporter. A written message left for Tawana Simpson later was not returned.
Habitat is a non-profit Christian housing ministry that has been working to provide safe, affordable housing to families in need across America and internationally for more than 30 years. It is not a hand-out, organizers stress, with participating families required not only to pay off a mortgage, but help build or renovate the home in which they will live.
Habitat Executive Director Karen Evans Kaufer and board member David J. Harris said they could not speak to issues regarding specific homeowners, but did confirm that agency policy does not permit mortgage holders to lease their homes.
The agency has procedures in place for dealing with issues involving homeowners, Evans Kaufer said, “but those procedures take time.”
“I have a hardworking staff, a hardworking board. Any time there is any issue, we are on top of it,”she said.
Schaffer also filed a right-to-know request with the city of Wilkes-Barre, seeking documentation regarding the property’s zoning and whether the Simpsons had filed any rental inspection or license request. Among the documents he received in return was a Nov. 13 receipt for a $70 inspection fee. The receipt does not clarify what type of inspection was performed.
“The city is unable to comment on this case while it is under investigation and all of the facts have been sorted out,” spokeswoman Liza Prokop said last week when asked about whether officials have received any complaints about the property.
News photos from November 2009 show members of Habitat’s board presenting the keys to John Simpson, who with his wife spent more than 400 hours of work — “sweat equity,” in Habitat parlance — transforming the building donated by Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Pelczar into a home suitable for themselves and their five children.
Everyone walked away with something to smile about: Pelczar saw his former building put to good use, the Simpsons worked their way into a home and a mortgage and Habitat could claim its 16th successful home project, with the Simpsons’ mortgage payments helping fund the construction and renovation of other Habitat homes.
“The benefit is, people who might not have the opportunity to become homeowners are given the opportunity to become homeowners,” Evans Kaufer said Friday.
“We have helped 55 children,” she added. “Those are 55 children who will hopefully have better opportunities, children who we hope will grow up and become second-generation homeowners.”
Described in 2009 news reports, 171 Stanton St. was one of Habitat’s most complex efforts up until that time.
At 1,700-square-feet, it was about 600-square-feet larger than Habitat was accustomed to handling. The building also had a flat roof, so workers added a pitched roof to give it a more residential feel. Evans Kaufer also described in contemporary reports how an architect was brought in to create plans for a five-bedroom layout suitable for the family of seven.
Beyond sweat equity, other requirements for home applicants also were described in a 2009 story: they must have been Luzerne County residents for a year; have the ability to pay a 20-year, no-interest $55,000 mortgage and other household expenses; be a first-time homeowner; and have a solid credit history.
“Habitat houses are affordable for low-income families because there is no profit included in the sale price and no interest charged on the mortgage,” according to the local group’s website.
A review of the Simpsons’ mortgage, on file with Luzerne County, did not reveal any specific prohibition on rental in that document. Harris said such language, if included, could be part of separate, private loan documents between Habitat and borrowers, but again he said he could not comment on whether this is true with respect to the Stanton Street home.
“I can tell you there are different documents in each case,” Harris said.
A Times Leader review of websites maintained by other Habitat chapters around the nation showed prohibitions on renting out Habitat homes commonly listed on “frequently asked questions” pages for potential homeowners.
Schaffer said he has left several messages for Evans Kaufer inquiring about the status of 171 Stanton St., and was told only that Habitat was “looking into it.”
Evans Kaufer reiterated that she could not speak to specifics, but said the agency is diligent with respect to issues involving its properties.
“We are doing everything in our ability to remedy any issue we have with Habitat homes,” she said. That includes “appropriate legal action, but legal action takes time,” Evans Kaufer added.
Schaffer said he and other neighbors don’t have a problem with the people they say are living in the home — “decent folks,” in his words. They just want to be sure the property is being used the way donors and volunteers envisioned.
“I want to let you know that I am not trying to bash the organization, but believe that people who donate their time and money to this charity should be made aware of the problems that do arise,” Schaffer said.