NYC Homeowners Say Contractor Burned Them After Payments to Fix Fire Devastation

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Anne McNeill, 75, is living with a friend while waiting for repairs to her Bedford-Stuyvesant home. Photo Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan and Long Island, more than a dozen say insurance payouts got pocketed by a home improvement company that left their homes incomplete or even uninhabitable. Authorities are contemplating action.

By: Gabriel Sandoval – TheCity.nyc

More than three years ago, a fire that started in a neighbor’s property ravaged Anne McNeill’s Brooklyn brownstone.

She hoped the incinerated interior would be quickly repaired. She wanted to return to her three-story home, in the Stuyvesant Heights historic district on Macdonough Street.

A month after the fire, McNeill agreed to pay nearly $400,000 to Long Island-based contractor Stephen Rivers and his company, Restoration Management Plus, to make repairs. Her home insurer agreed on a settlement claim to cover the costs, with funds sent to Rivers in increments based on the amount of work completed.

Inside Anne McNeill’s home Photo Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rivers received $182,758, McNeill’s records show — yet she isn’t close to returning home. She alleges in a suit filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court in July that Rivers pocketed the money while making scarce progress on repairs.

“There’s nothing,” McNeill, 75, recently told THE CITY. “There’s no walls, there’s no electricity, there’s nothing. It’s like a bare house. That’s what it is.”

McNeill is one of nine homeowners across New York who told THE CITY that after fires ravaged their homes, Rivers collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance payments to repair each of their properties but never finished the work.

The city Department of Consumer Affairs and Worker Protection has received eight complaints about Restoration Management Plus since 2019, the agency told THE CITY. The agency controls licenses for home improvement contractors.

“DCWP is currently investigating the company,” said Carmel Agnant, an agency spokesperson.

The company is also under investigation in Nassau County, where the Office of Consumer Affairs said it has received six complaints, four of which remain open.

In addition, the state Department of Financial Services, which issues licenses to public adjusters, says it has received complaints on Rivers and is currently investigating them. The agency has the power to revoke licenses.

Steve Bell’s house in Freeport before he started working on it himself, photographed in February 2021. Photo Credit: Steve Bell

Dual Role

The homeowners interviewed by THE CITY said that Rivers persuaded them to use him as their insurance adjuster, responsible for negotiating with insurance companies to secure settlement funds to cover restoration work, as well as the contractor doing the work.

State law permits adjusters to simultaneously serve as contractors, provided they inform their clients of the relationship and keep meticulous records — and, of course, deliver the work they are paid for.

Rivers associated himself with a Queens-based company called the New York Adjustment Bureau. Multiple homeowners told THE CITY that Rivers collected a commission fee for working on their behalf.

He negotiated with their insurance providers for settlement claims, reaped a percentage of the payouts, got paid again as their contractor, commenced repairs on their homes — and then ditched the projects, his complaining clients alleged.

Only after securing insurance settlements did Rivers reveal to some of the homeowners that he also owned a home restoration company, pitching himself as the contractor most qualified to repair their homes, they told THE CITY.

McNeill and a Nassau homeowner say they have spoken with many more families who say they too have been victimized by Rivers. One owns a Harlem rowhouse wrecked in the blaze that killed a firefighter during the filming of the movie “Motherless Brooklyn.”

This summer, McNeill and two other homeowners in New York City filed separate lawsuits against Rivers, his business associates and others involved, claiming that he misappropriated funds and misrepresented himself in his dual role.

One of the plaintiffs, in Holliswood, Queens, said she had been waiting for repairs for five years. She alleges in court papers that insurance has paid Rivers’ company more than $500,000 but that her home is still not habitable.

 

Paying Mortgage and Rent

While dealing with traumatic home fires, the homeowners said, the unfinished work has compounded their suffering. They’re struggling mentally and financially because their insurance no longer covers their temporary housing and storage facility costs, they said.

“What he’s done is so awful, at one of the worst times in your life,” said Valerie Collins, whose family hired Rivers after a fire obliterated their Uniondale, L.I., home in 2017. The Collins family’s insurance released more than $300,000 to Rivers, but she alleges he never completed the work.

McNeill said she continues to pay $2,130 a month for her mortgage, even though she suspects she won’t be returning home for at least a year and a half. She said her insurance covered her housing and storage costs for nearly two years, but she’s since moved in with a friend.

A bathroom in Steve Bell’s house in Freeport photographed in February 2021, before he started working it on himself. Photo Credit: Steve Bell

Each month, she pays $1,000 in rent and $954 for a CubeSmart storage unit.

Two Long Island families told THE CITY they endured homelessness as a result of Rivers stopping work on their homes.

Rivers did not respond to THE CITY’s requests for comment.

THE CITY also did not receive a response from an attorney representing Rivers in a suit filed in May by a Bronx homeowner. The homeowner alleges that Rivers called him and his wife after his house burned down in November 2019 and sold them his services, but that “no repair work has been done in my house” as of May 2021.

Rivers responded in court with a claim alleging that he and his company were in the process of performing the work but that the homeowner did not allow them to proceed. The homeowner denies those allegations.

Rivers, whose office is in Freeport, L.I., is still a licensed contractor and public adjuster in New York City, as well as in Nassau and Suffolk counties, public records show.

 

Brooklyn DA Investigating

Nassau, meanwhile, had scheduled administrative hearings for Sept. 28 in connection with four consumer complaints against Restoration Management Plus but had to postpone them after Nassau County did not pay the judge, a contract employee, complainants were told.

Vicki DiStefano, a Nassau County spokesperson, said the hearings have yet to be rescheduled. Two other complaints are closed, she said.

“The complaints have to be adjudicated before we would move to suspend or revoke his license,” said DiStefano, who also acknowledged that funding for the judge’s contract had run out.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office encouraged people to report any consumer fraud on its website by selecting the Consumer Frauds Bureau office nearest to them.

A spokesperson for the office of Brooklyn District Attorney, Eric Gonzalez, said that it is familiar with Restoration. McNeill told THE CITY that she has been in contact with the Brooklyn DA’s office, responding to an investigator’s questions about her experience dealing with Rivers.

 

‘They Stopped Coming’

McNeill, like other homeowners, said public adjusters bombarded her after the Feb. 13, 2018, fire. She signed a contract with New York Adjustment Bureau, agreeing to pay a 4% fee out of the settlement funds released by her insurance, Liberty Mutual, court records state.

Contractors also began pitching their services to her, and she selected Rivers because of his professed specialization in restoring brownstone homes. “At the time, I did not know that Mr. Rivers was working with the New York Adjustment Bureau,” McNeill said.

Around August 2018, McNeill said, she grew dissatisfied with the bureau’s public adjuster, as the process moved slower than she hoped. When McNeill told Rivers she wanted a new adjuster, he offered to take the role since he also worked for New York Adjustment Bureau.

She obliged, originally thinking it’d be OK. But it wasn’t, she said.

“It was a conflict of interest,” she believes.

She said Rivers hired a crew of four construction workers to commence repairs on her house in 2018, but they soon started complaining to her that Rivers wasn’t paying them.

“By the end of November of 2018, they stopped coming,” she said.

Throughout 2019, she said, she questioned Rivers about the workers’ absence. Meanwhile, no progress was made on her home. Her gutted house didn’t have a roof, and rain and snow came crashing in, along with insects and small animals.

In 2019, a city Department of Buildings inspector identified damage to her home’s facade and placed a temporary stop work order on the property, McNeill said.

The inspector declared that “in order to fix inside, you got to fix on the outside first,” she recalled him saying.

She said her insurance allotted funds to fix her home’s interior, but nothing for the exterior. So then Rivers, without informing her, filed an emergency petition with her insurance company, proving that the outside work needed to be done, she said.

Rivers’ petition to McNeill’s insurance yielded a $59,000 check in April 2020, she said.

Her insurance company sent the money to her bank, which released a check to him, she said. The check required her endorsement, and she didn’t want to sign it over to Rivers but eventually caved, hoping that he’d resume work on her home.

But work didn’t happen, she alleges, on either the facade or interior.

In June 2021, Rivers got workers to install a roof, she said — only to abandon the project again, McNeill claims.

 

References Burned

In January, McNeill’s daughter-in-law in Savannah, Georgia, did some sleuthing online and found Rivers’ list of references offered to potential customers. It showed the names, addresses and phone numbers of former clients across the five boroughs, McNeill said.

She said she made a few calls and was shocked to hear reports from people on his own reference list that Rivers had not finished their projects, either.

Then, in February, News 12 Long Island aired a segment on a Freeport family’s traumatizing experience with Rivers after an electrical fire destroyed their home on May 31, 2017.

Steve Bell told News 12 that his mother hired Rivers and her insurance released more than $300,000 to him, but the work wasn’t completed. Repairs that were finished weren’t done properly and needed to be redone. He added that construction workers complained that Rivers wasn’t paying them, then stopped coming altogether.

McNeill saw the segment online and was again shocked by similarities, she said. She picked up the phone and dialed more people on the list.

“That really, really sparked it,” she said. “After that, I started calling the people and checking with them about what was happening and they told me.”

The common thread through their stories, McNeill added, was Rivers, his company Restoration and New York Public Adjustment Bureau.

She said she told about 20 families that she planned to sue Rivers. She and two other homeowners — one in Brooklyn and one in Queens — hired the same lawyer, Brian Figueroux, while the rest told their horror stories to her but decided against pursuing cases.

McNeill said Figueroux informed her that the Brooklyn DA needed more victims to pursue a case. “So I eventually, again, started calling the people and saying to them, ‘when the DA calls you, will you tell them your story?’ And they agreed.”

Bell told THE CITY Rivers initially put a roof, siding and windows on his home. “After that, no work was done until two years later,” he said.

Bell said Rivers gave excuse after excuse for not making progress on repairs, while promising Bell’s retired mother that he would eventually finish the job.

(www.TheCity.nyc)

(This article originally appeared on TheCity.nyc web site: Link to article: https://www.thecity.nyc/2021/11/7/22766053/nyc-homeowners-say-contractor-burned-them-fire-devastation

 

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