Four families in the Belmont Heights neighborhood are getting help after a decade of living in homes with Chinese drywall.

The homes were all part of Tampa Housing Authority's program that helped put deserving people in the position to buy their first homes.

  • Families received down payment help in 2007
  • Toxic Chinese drywall caused numerous problems
  • City, county, Tampa Housing Authority helping families

A dozen underprivileged families, all with jobs and steady income, received tens of thousands of dollars to help with down payments for their first homes back in 2007. Each person had to go through rigorous financial and homeownership classes to qualify.

"It was amazing to me. A dream I really wanted to come true, came true," Spencer said.

But the program quickly turned into a nightmare that hasn't ended.

Families started noticing their appliances were breaking. They would get them fixed, only to have them break a week later.

Spencer said the company that came to fix her air conditioner for the second time discovered the source of the problem: toxic Chinese drywall.

"He pulled the coil out and showed me the blackness, all the smut and everything that was on it," Spencer said.

That explained the headaches and sinus problems some of the families said they experienced after moving in.

"They are extraordinary individuals. They did everything the right way. The system failed them."

Of the 12 families living in the homes, all but four walked away. Spencer and neighbor Simartra Johnson knew it was a health issue, but refused to give up after they took out large loans for their first homes. They were worried about their credit scores, and knew if they walked away they may never be able to own a home again.

"I'm thinking about the debt. I just got a loan for $175,000. Now I'm in something that is worth nothing. So what do I do from here?” Spencer said.

The homes are now valued at under $10,000, according to Spencer and Johnson.

Spencer said she went to the Tampa Housing Authority. But it turns out the problem was the builder's fault, Spencer was told. The builder has since gone out of business, and passed away.

The families have had nowhere to turn until now. They got help from an unlikely place: Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who had nothing to do with the program and never met the families before hearing their story a few months ago.

"They are extraordinary individuals. They did everything the right way. The system failed them," Hagan said.

Hagan brokered a plan that will allow the four families left to live in temporary housing for six to nine months while their homes are gutted of Chinese drywall and rebuilt.

The county is paying $200,000 for the work, while the city is matching the funds dollar for dollar. Tampa Housing Authority is helping with the temporary apartments.

Hagan announced to the homeowners at a meeting today they will each receive a $3,000 voucher from Rooms to Go to furnish their new homes once they are finished. Furniture in their current homes has also been ruined by the drywall.

The women were in tears when hearing the news.

"There's actually someone out there that cares," Spencer said.