WILLINGTON, CT — Vincent and Maggie Perracchio bought their home 27 years ago. It’s where they raised their four kids, and they never imagined the financial and emotional nightmare it would turn out to be.
The house, which is situated in a quiet rural town not far from Interstate 84, is one of hundreds and perhaps as many as 34,000 homes impacted by crumbling foundations.
The Perracchio’s home was the first stop on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s Connecticut tour Monday.
Maggie Perracchio explained to Carson that the side room off the kitchen is no longer attached to the house.
Like others their crumbling concrete foundation doesn’t necessarily fall. Rather, it actually rises so the cabinets are starting to pull away from the walls. The side room has cracked from floor to ceiling. Doors don’t shut and windows are now breaking apart because of the torque in the structure of the home.
“You can see daylight from the floor all the way up to the ceiling,” Perracchio explained as she showed Carson the side room.
That was before they used spray foam to fill in the cracks to prevent insects, drafts, and daylight from getting through.
“What is the end result?” Carson asked.
“You mean is there a house that has just collapsed?” Vincent Perracchio said. “Not yet.”
But if it does collapse, then at that moment the homeowners are on the hook.
Insurance companies have not been covering the claims filed by homeowners like the Perracchios, citing a change in policy that only requires them to cover a “sudden or abrupt collapse.” Whereas the condition involving the crumbling foundations happens over a number of years. According to the insurance companies, this means it doesn’t qualify as a sudden collapse.
Lawmakers told Carson that the insurance industry was aware of the crumbling foundation problem and were able to get the change to policies before homeowners were able to file their claims.
“I’m just flabbergasted that the insurance companies could get away with this,” Carson said.
Eric J. George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, said his organization is very sympathetic to the homeowners experiencing this problem, but the “intent of homeowners insurance has never been to cover a defective product.”
Carson wanted to know if replacement of the foundation, which is costly, is the only solution to the problem.
“That’s the only thing they’ve come up with for a solution is to replace the foundation?” Carson asked.
Vincent Perracchio said some people have tried pouring another wall to encase or re-enforce the original one, but that wall will also bow because there is nothing to stop the first from crumbling.
Don Childree, a contractor who is familiar with the issue, said they’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work. Even if you encased it with better concrete “It still doesn’t not stop this,” he told Carson.
The home, which the Perracchios purchased in 1991 for $190,000, is now assessed at $67,000, according to records from the tax assessor. The 2,500-square-foot structure was built in 1988 and, according to Maggie Perracchio, the foundation was poured by J.J. Mottes.
Carson asked about whether the concrete aggregate was still being used to pour foundations and was told that the company, which has since been sold, entered into an assurance of voluntary compliance with the attorney general and the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection to stop selling aggregate from its quarry for use in residential foundations. There was no similar assurance for commercial use.
The state’s investigation found that the quarry from which J.J. Mottes used aggregate lies on a vein of rock “that contains significant amounts of pyrrhotite.”
Carson joked that they could send the aggregate to enemies of the United States.
Who Should Be Responsible for the Problem?
Connecticut’s building code “never prohibited, limited, or otherwise regulated” the use of pyrrhotite in the construction of residential foundations, the state investigation in 2016 concluded.
Last month, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation that would add a $12 surcharge to every homeowner insurance policy in the state to help homeowners like the Perracchios. The bill is still waiting for the governor’s signature.
Last year, the Connecticut General Assembly established a Crumbling Foundations Assistance Fund, whose funds will be administered by a not-for-profit captive insurance company, to allow $100 million in bonding over the next five years to assist homeowners with crumbling foundations.
The federal government has so far been unable to offer any help.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman didn’t waste the opportunity to thank Carson profusely for visiting eastern Connecticut and begged him for any help the federal government could offer.
Wyman, who lives in Tolland, has been helping homeowners work with the state for relief.
In 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that it would not offer assistance because officials did not deem the crumbling foundations as a “natural catastrophe.”
Connecticut officials disagreed with that assessment.
“What’s needed is for FEMA to declare these homes a disaster, which they are,” Blumenthal said Monday. “They’re every bit a disaster as homes that have been struck by a tornado or hit with an earthquake. The disaster here has come from the ground.”
The Perracchio’s house was one inspected in 2017 by FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Perracchio said they have not received any results of those test from FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers.
Blumenthal said they hope a combination of the legislation and the pressure they can bring to bear will cause FEMA to declare it a natural disaster and help provide homeowners who had insurance the relief they deserve.
In April, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Blumenthal introduced the Aid to Homeowners with Crumbling Foundations Act, which would provide $100 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to states like Connecticut that have created non-profit crumbling foundation assistance funds to repair damage to residential structures due to the presence of pyrrhotite. The Crumbling Foundations Small Business and Homeowners Assistance Act, introduced by Blumenthal and co-sponsored by Murphy, would create a similar grant program through FEMA.
“I hope that he was able to appreciate the impact from a structural perspective,” Maggie Perracchio said. “That he could see it first hand.”
Carson said there is an impression that his agency “just has these big buckets of money,” when everything they do has to be appropriated by Congress.
“But by working together with the other federal agencies, with Congress, with the state, and with the local officials as well as the private sector,” Carson said. “The solution needs to be really comprehensive and involve all those different entities.”
He didn’t weigh in on whether it was a natural disaster, but said “it doesn’t negate the fact that we should care about our neighbors.”
Carson left the Perracchio’s home to attend a closed-door meeting in Tolland with about 20 other homeowners impacted by the issue of crumbling foundations.
Three of their children are now grown and have moved out, but the Perracchios can’t sell their home.
“I still have a son in the school system, and we couldn’t sell it so we would just have to walk away,” Maggie Perracchio said. “So I’d either continue to pay the mortgage and not live here or we’d have to figure out how to get it repaired.”
Perracchio has had to give her younger son, who still lives at home, instructions about what to do if he’s home alone and hears a lot of noise, he should get the dog out and go next door.
“Last winter, I was in the side room and I just heard this big bang,” Perracchio said.
She said she asked her husband, who was upstairs at the time, what he dropped and he said he thought she was the one who dropped something.
They went into the basement and saw another large crack had formed.
“You’ll occasionally hear wood creaking because that’s the house torquing,” Perracchio said.