WILLINGTON, Conn. — Ben Carson, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, stood Monday morning in the basement of an Willington, Connecticut, home and watched sunlight creep in through cracks in the concrete walls — walls failing because they were built with gravel tainted with pyrrhotite.
Carson stood back as homeowners Maggie and Vincent Perracchio pointed out to him how the basement walls have lifted up, tearing their home from from its sills. He saw inches of air in between the tops of lolly columns and the heavy crossbeam those uprights were meant to support.
"I’m just flabbergasted the insurance companies are able to get away with this," Carson, a brain surgeon and one-time presidential candidate, said.
‘Take the emotion out of it’ a family lives with in a crumbling home
Insurers are reluctant to pay claims for folks like the Perracchios whose homes are collapsing but not yet collapsed and Massachusetts insurance policies are even tougher to deal with.
The Perrachhio’s home here in eastern Connecticut, just off Interstate 84 and an hour drive from Springfield, was built with concrete mined from Becker Quarry here in Willington, just about five miles away.
Over time, the naturally occurring pyrrhotite reacts with oxygen and water. It rusts, essentially, and rust swells causing cracking, crumbling and eventually collapse.
The pyrrhotite is likely in 34,000 Connecticut homes and an untold number of homes in neighboring Massachusetts.
Repairing the damage can be expensive. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to lift a home, scoop out the old concrete, replace it with new and then set the house down.
Carson came to Willington Monday at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and John Larson, Richard Neal and others, are looking for federal relief for homeowners with pyrrhotite in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Murphy, Blumenthal, Courtney and Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman were on the tour Monday.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson Tours Home Damaged by Crumbling Foundation
The Aid to Homeowners with Crumbling Foundations Act, introduced by Murphy and cosponsored by Blumenthal, would provide $100 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to states like Connecticut or Massachusetts that have created nonprofit assistance funds to repair pyrrhotite-related damage.
The Crumbling Foundations Small Business and Homeowners Assistance Act, introduced by Blumenthal and cosponsored by Murphy, would create a similar grant program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Carson had little to say in the way of immediate courses of action Monday. He promised to work together in a nonpartisan way with officials from both states and other branches of the federal government on solutions.
Courtney said its unreasonable to expect Carson to write a federal check on the spot. But seeing is believing and a first-hand experience is worth thousands of briefing books and memos.
"I think that the next time we reach out to the Trump administration on this issue, we’ll be dealing with a more receptive HUD," he said.
Murphy said: "We need him, we need Sec. Carson, to push our legislation over the goal line."
Homeowner Maggie Perracchio said Carson, the lawmakers, their entourages and reporters from both states were the biggest crowd she’d hosted in hears. They rarely entertain anymore because its too hard to explain whey their house doesn’t look right.
She pointed to a family room with a cathedral ceiling that is separating from the rest of the home, inch wide cracks visible in its walls. She showed where cabinets have pulled from the wall. She showed off the cracks in the basement.
They’ve lived here for 27 years having bought the home from its previous owners when it was just more than a year old.
Vincent Perracchi said the damage started off small with hairline fractures.
Then one morning about two-and-a-half years ago, Maggie Perrachio was in that family room when she heard a noise. She described it as sounding like a rambunctious child jumping down from a counter top onto the kitchen floor.
It was a chunk of the basement wall falling in.
"Maggie and I know we don’t have much longer here," Vincent Perrachio said. "We are going to have to move. It’s not safe."
Contractor Don Childree of South Windsor said only the weight and friction of the Perracchios’ home is keeping it together.
"The force of the concrete expanding is tearing it apart," he said. "It’s relentless."
Tainted concrete will crunch anything in its path. Contractors have built new concrete walls to contain it only to have the bad concrete crumble the new with its unyielding pressure.
Childree said he’s quoted the Perracchios’ a price of $215,000 to repair their home.
He’s got five of these jobs going right now and will do 15 by the end of the year. He’s given estimates in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow, too.
Homeowners have trouble paying for the repairs. The damage means their homes have no value to collateralize a home equity loan.
One of Childree’s customers can’t pay him until later this year, after the customer has another birthday and is old enough to cash in his retirement account without a tax penalty.
Childree said some Connecticut homeowners have sued to get heir insurers to pay. Massachusetts homeowners have as yet only heard ‘no’.
Maggie Perracchio said his home is worth nothing.
"We had it reassessed a few years ago," she said. "We only pay taxes on the land."
Blumenthal said FEMA needs to actively respond to the concrete crisis in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
"This needs to be declared a natural disaster," Blumenthal said. "It’s a disaster that came from up out of the earth. Just like an earthquake."
Mayor David Narkewicz has invited the public to meet the two finalists for police chief Thursday night in the Community Room of the Northampton Police Station at 6 p.m.
Co-Chair Rep. Joseph Wagner (center) and other members of the Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee are considering a Sen. Eileen Donoghue daily fantasy sports bill. [Photo: Sam Doran/SHNS]