Welfare mother Adelaide Bailey was napping on the Living room couch in her government subsidized, $20,000 home when her children jarred her awake with screams that the bedroom was on fire.
The blaze, which gutted Bailey's one-time "dream house" on Virginia's starkly impoversished Eastern Shore, was later blamed on the shoddy workmanship and dangerous wiring that have plagued the U.S. effort here to help the rural poor buy their own homes.
But these construction defects have recently been overshadowed by a potentially bigger, built-in flaw in the federally funded program in Accormack and Northampton counties: the box-like homes are all-electric.
Many residents, struggling with soaring utility bills apparently unforeseen by government planners, are more in debt than ever. Electric bills run between $80 and $300 a month, even though several residents complanined they use little electricity and haven't had a warm home in the winter since moving in.
Some families, among the vast majority of the Eastern Shore's 44,000 residents who are on welfare or earning poverty-level wages as field hands and tenant farmers, have lost their homes after falling hoplelessly behind in metting mortgage payments as low as $55 a month.
The haste with which some contractors erected more than 1,000 of the homes is blamed for serious construction flaws, including those that have helped drive utility bills upward. Low income owners interviewed here also said they were told only after moving in that they would have to pay for repairs themselves.
Problems with the massive, $10 billion nationwide program, operated by the Agriculture Department's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), prompted Congress in 1978 to appropriate and additional $1 million a year to compensate beleaguered homeowners for construction defects.
But the tiny fund can only be tapped after the agency has made every effort to get the contractor to make the repairs.
Virginia officials of the Farmers Home Administration downplay any problems with their housing program and say they have gone to extraordinary lengths to help poor residents get their homes and keep them. They deny evicting any families and blame most of the housing conditions on the home buyers themselves.
"I don't care if you have a $100,000 house, you've still got to maintain it," said Greg Ellis, who has been a federal housing inspector for the past two years. He echoes the views of Bill Adams, a program supervisor, who argued that some of the homes with problems have been "abused" by their owners.
But Donald Matthews, Accomack County's fire marshal, said it is the contractors who are abusing the program sometimes with heart-breaking consequences.
"Most of these people are very nice and well intentioned, and they want to pay for their homes," Matthews said. "But the contractors tend to throw up 10 or 15 of these houses and ease out of the picture without making the repairs they should. They sort of pass off the low-income residents until the one-year warranty on the house runs out."
Rural housing experts, who priase the FmHA for its loan services to the poor, said problems with the housing program have cropped up elsewhere but none have been as severe as those in Virginia. Four years ago, in another housing controversy, an FmHA official in Suffolk was convicted and jailed for signing phony loan papers amid numerous complaints about the poor quality of the program's homes there.
"Some contractors don't do as good a work as others," acknowledged A. Jennings Orr, FmHA's assistant national administrator for single family housing . "But it's a small problem considering the number of houses - 110,000 a year - we do across the nation."
Orr said the FmHA has authority to bar firms who do poor work from receiving any further government contracts.
Adelaide Bailey, 46, was glad to get the four-bedroom home she bought for herself, four children and two grandchildren with the help of a low-interest federal loan.
It was better than any place she had ever lived, Bailey recalled last week. It wasn't until she moved in that she discovered her new $20,000 home wasn't such a bargain after all.
"Some of the [electric] sockets just wouldn't work, and they would never send anyone to fix it," said Bailey. "I could lay in my bed and smell something burning, but I was told by inspectors that nothing was wrong."
The heat in the house hadn't been working since the day she moved in, according to Bailey. On the day of the fire, the only appliance she had on was a small furnace in the living room. She was alone in the house until her children came home and discovered the blaze.
Bailey's family escaped from the house safely and eventually relocated in an aging shack beside a dirt road. The house has no electricity, so they no longer worry about the wiring or high utility bills. But their hopes of home ownership are gone.
"The program itself is good, but they just threw the houses up," complains another low-income buyer, Celia Santiago. "It's a ripoff of the poor."
Santiago, a mother of two who moved to Accomack County to escape crime in Philadelphia, has lived in her three-bedroom, $17,500 home for about five years. Before the Farmers Home Administration program, she said, there was no low-income housing available here. The poor found what shelter they could in old tenant farmer shacks that had outhouses.
"After something like that, you think it's great to get a place like this," said Santiago, who is paying ,55 a month for her home. But even at that rate, maintaining the home has put an impossible strain on her $217-a-month welfare check.
"That first winter, the heating bills were unbelievable," she complained. "The house was never warm, and whenever I put the heat on, the living-room wall began to bulge and buckle."
The homes are prefabricated modular units trucked from the factory to the housign site and assembled by local contractors under government supervision. They are put together by joining two trailer-shaped sections back to back.
Santiago said she suspected the worst when she found a boy awkwardly wielding a handsaw in her kitchen just before she moved in.
"He said he was training to be a carpenter, and he was working for a local contractor who had been hired by FmHA to put up my house," she said. "But I think I have enough folks training on me already."
Bailey and Santiago are not alone in their complaints. Several residents and a local black electrical contractor, Howard Ames, listed these structural defects:
Lights in some homes that explde every time they're turned on.
Heating untis so inadequate that some low-income owners have sought additional loans to put in supplemental chimneys and furnaces to warm at least the living room.
Three and as many as four rooms with only one circuit, a dangerous violation of the National Electric Code, according to Ames.
Window panes that fall out and break whenever an adjacent window or door is shut.
Bathroom toilets that won't flush and that new owners said they had to pay to repair themselves even though the homes are supposed to have a one-year warranty.
Leaks and drainage problems that, in at least one instance, caused a kitchen ceiling to collapse.
Despite these reports from homeowners, Jean Engler, who supervises the agency's Accomack office said, FmHA "hasn't had very many complaints, and there have been no foreclosures."
She challenged the fire marshal's comments about the fire hazards in the homes, saying her office has "a very good relationship with the contractors." She said they are required to repair any defects before they are paid in full.
The local office did concede that they are understaffed but claimed to have inspected each of the houses at the time the buyers moved in, finding that everything met government construction standards.
By law, contractors can receive 60 percent of their payments before the work is completed and the rest of their money once it is finished. But the Farmers Home Administration state office in Richmond said it doesn't always wait for the families to move in and check out the homes before paying off the contractors.