As federal and state investigators try to sort out what happened to millions of dollars that Hercules used to fund its affordable housing program – now suspended for the second time in a decade – one thing is clear: The city has paid out substantially more than it has taken in.
Since 2003, the program has loaned almost $10 million in taxpayer money to help at least 150 individuals and families buy and keep their homes. No one can say for sure how much of that money has been repaid, but reports submitted to the California Department of Housing and Community Development suggest repayments might amount to as little as $408,647.
Some of the loans enabled people to fix up their homes with no payments and deferred interest for 10 years. Others helped them climb out of a financial hole. A handful of the properties have been leveraged for more than they're worth, turning loans that seemed like a sure bet into losses for this cash-strapped city.
"It's a lot of money out there that could be a profit center for the city," said Frank Fox, a real estate developer hired to manage the city's troubled properties earlier this year.
And having laid off close to half of its city employees this year, Hercules is in desperate need of some "profit." The only problem: No one remaining at City Hall seems to know precisely how much is owed on these loans or whether it's even possible to go after the debts.
"I have to tell you that I don't have the answers to these detailed questions," new City Manager Steve Duran said in response to a recent email inquiry about the loan portfolio. "What I have done is to reach out to a consultant who can hopefully give me a few firms that can help us with this."
Duran is the first Hercules city manager to be hired through a competitive selection process over the last decade. His predecessors had been hired on the strength of personal connections planted in small towns where all three of the previous city managers had lived or worked.
With no friends to pave the way, Duran inherited a mess when he took on the city's top management post last month.
• • • See Patch's Crisis in Hercules • • •
Since 2004, the affordable housing program in this town had been run by Affordable Housing Solutions Group, a company later incorporated as NEO, which stands for "Nelson E. Oliva," who ran the firm and then became Hercules' city manager. The firm left the city with its loan files when its contract was canceled earlier this year, but when reporters for The Huffington Post and Hercules Patch reviewed those files, many were so incomplete that they did not even contain deeds or other records on file with the county recorder's office.
NEO's contract was canceled in February following a controversy that led to the , a commercial real estate developer who'd been hired to manage the city when Oliva was off on medical leave last year.
In the space of less than two months as interim manager, Long identified financial irregularities that he predicted would lead to a budget meltdown within a few months if left unaddressed. And he set out to solve the problem with a machete, proposing radical changes that included the cancellation of NEO, a company founded and managed until recent years by Oliva.
The same night he was to have canceled the affordable housing contract, Long was fired, and NEO's founder, Oliva, was welcomed back as city manager. All decisions on the city's impending financial crisis were tabled, and NEO was back in business managing the city's affordable housing, which included the $10 million loan portfolio.
But not for long.
In the space of two months, Hercules canceled its longstanding contract with NEO-Affordable Housing Solutions Group and . The city is now for $3 million, alleging violations of state law and breach of fiduciary duty. Neither Oliva nor his colleagues agreed to be interviewed for this report.
"It was shocking to see how little they did with what they had," said Maria Benjamin, program manager at Community Housing Development Corporation, a Richmond-based nonprofit that offers education counseling and loan services to first-time homebuyers and those at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure.
Of the $10 million spent on affordable housing loans since 2004, about $2.6 million has gone to employees of the city and their friends or relatives. With more than 900 people on the wait list for housing assistance, the fact that $1 out of every $4 went to those with connections to City Hall drew criticism in a civil grand jury report titled "" which Contra Costa County issued last year.
"The processes for carrying out the affordable housing and business loan programs lack transparency in the City of Hercules," the grand jury concluded. "Available redevelopment loans are not publicized. Decisions, for the most part, are handled by subcommittees of the City Council which do not record meetings or maintain minutes. Loans were made to family members of staff and elected officials. These practices raise the specter of impropriety and diminish the public trust."
Some of the loans legitimately fell within the approved guidelines for interest-deferred loans of up to $35,000 offered to city employees, schoolteachers and firefighters as an incentive to keep them living in the city.
Others raise questions that remain unanswered. Consider, for example, a loan package awarded to Donna Sophus and her daughter, Shirnise, a city employee.
It was more than 10 years ago that Donna Sophus first walked into City Hall looking for some type of assistance that could get her into a home of her own. A year later, she got a call inviting her to come in and fill out an application.
"I went to all the things that they had for us, got certificates, went to the seminars, and I waited," she told the City Council in December 2010. "I made calls back. Never heard nothing. Program ended."
In fact, the program had been suspended after a senior housing official was sent to prison on charges that he had pocketed money from the city's beautification loans by fabricating invoices.
"The next time I heard from the city is when the affordable housing program came back. In 2009, I got my key, and I am a homeowner," she told the City Council. "The program, the staff is people that you can trust. ... I take my hat off to you, Mr. Oliva, and I thank you."
Sophus was among the crowd of people at City Hall last December who surprisingly showed up to applaud in the city manager's office after a nearly three-month medical leave. In the years before he'd been handed the reins to the city, , and the audience that night was packed with his supporters, many of whom, like Sophus, had received substantial loans from a city teetering on the brink of insolvency.
Sophus had good reason to be grateful.
The year before, documents show, she and her daughter had received $386,575 in loans from the Hercules Redevelopment Agency to buy a house in the city's Baywood district, a quaint neighborhood of brick alleyways and carefully designed row housing with picketed front porches facing paved sidewalks.
Their Baywood home was one of a dozen so-called "inclusionary" affordable houses intended to fulfill the state requirement that 15 percent of new homes in redevelopment areas be made available to low-income buyers, which is broadly defined as those with .
The affordable housing package awarded to Sophus and her daughter included a loan for $135,000 with deferred payments and interest for 20 years. It was granted under the Inclusionary Below Market Affordable Housing Homebuyer Mortgage Assistance Loan Program, one of several deferred-payment loans offered by the city.
The women will not be required to make payments on that loan until 2029, at which point their monthly payment will be $749, according to documents on file with the city.
The package also included a loan almost twice that size granted under the a fund normally reserved for properties in default or so behind in payments that the owners are at risk of going into default.
The retention loan – a little more than a quarter-million dollars – was recorded with a deed of trust on Nov. 2, 2009, the same day the purchase was recorded, raising questions about why funds earmarked to save homeowners from default would be loaned to someone just buying their first house.
All told, the loans from the city added up to $386,575, according to recorded documents. That's almost 100 percent of the $387,000 purchase price recorded in the documentary transfer tax.
With the departure of the city's affordable housing manager, NEO Consulting Inc. – doing business as Affordable Housing Solutions Group – there is no one left at City Hall to explain why any of it made sense. Even Fox, the real property manager intimate with many of the city's bigger deals, was baffled.
"Why in the world would we do that?" he said.
Neither Sophus nor her daughter could be reached for comment.
Since 2007, Hercules' affordable housing program has spent $3 million of taxpayer money on the loss mitigation and retention loans, and while it is difficult to say anything definitive given the scant information in the city's files, the trail of publicly recorded deeds on the eight loans the city reported indicates that the Sophus package was the only time a home buyer received a "retention" loan at the time of purchase.
It remains unclear what portion of that $3 million has been repaid.
The City Council approved the Loss Mitigation and Retention Loan Program on May 22, 2007, less than two weeks after Oliva was first appointed as Hercules' city manager, a job that had him signing off on contracts with NEO, his family firm. Oliva said he handed the company to his daughters when he became city manager, but a year later, he reported in a corporate filing that he was "president" of the company.
The affordable housing program's goals were laudable. At a time when the tumbling real estate market was creating clusters of foreclosed homes in many suburban neighborhoods, it aimed to help residents stave off foreclosure and remain in their homes.
While various other cities of the same size offer paint-and-patch loans and assistance to first-time homebuyers, the cash Hercules had invested in the retention loans may be unusual for a city of just 24,000 residents.
Neighboring Pinole, for example, a city of similar size, offers two large-dollar programs for first-time homebuyers and repairs as well as a basket of grants ranging from $2,000 to $8,000 for emergency repairs and seismic upgrade. But all its programs have been suspended due to a lack of funding. When Pinole was handing out money, its applicants were reviewed not in-house, but through a contract with the nonprofit housing corporation in Richmond.
Pleasant Hill, a slightly larger city within the county, offers connections to a host of programs through its website. Instead of lending directly to troubled homeowners, the city points them toward other pots of money, including programs that offer up to $3,000 a month in mortgage assistance for homeowners collecting unemployment.
In Hercules, however, the city or the redevelopment agency would step in as a lender, assuming the owner's first mortgage and establishing a new 30-year payment schedule at a fixed rate. In other cases, the city or the agency would buy the home outright, a strategy that resulted in net losses that are impossible to accurately tally because the affordable housing files do not contain enough information to do so.
That strategy left the city and its redevelopment agency actually owning a handful of houses, in some cases for more than two years.
"They're big losses for the city," Fox said of the homes the city snapped up. "We might almost have been better off letting them go."
The buying and selling of houses essentially had Hercules functioning as a real estate speculator and landlord in a declining market. The intent was to protect the city's initial investment of $35,000 or $50,000 in loans, but in some cases the city lost more than that on the transactions alone. In hindsight it didn't make good financial sense.
"We took these houses on how long ago and in some cases, we lost," Fox said.
In one case, the city lost at least $49,000 on a single house, a figure that does not include what might have been paid on taxes, maintenance, utilities or homeowners' dues over two years. It was a condo on scenic Refugio Valley Road that the Hercules Redevelopment Agency had purchased in 2009 for $168,000, recorded deeds reveal.
"This property is in default," read an unsigned note in the city's file. "We propose purchasing the property at a short sale price in an effort to recover the borrower's first-time homebuyer silent second loan of $50,000."
In May 2011, the agency sold it for $119,000. But what remains unclear is whether the city recovered its original $50,000 cash investment in the property.
Within a few months of being hired, Fox started selling off houses the city had bought through the loss mitigation program. By last summer, he had sold seven of the eight houses then owned by the city, most of which had been sitting in the city's inventory for two years or more.
Many of the troubled housing deals in Hercules have also involved insiders.
Hercules barely turned a profit on the sale of a home belonging to Jill Balico – the daughter of a former mayor, – that ended up in the city's lap.
It's unclear what role, if any, the former mayor played in deciding to have the city purchase his daughter's house. From 2007 to 2010, the decision-making subcommittee consisted of two members: Balico and former Councilman Kris Valstad, neither of whom could be reached for comment. Numbers that Hercules Patch had for Balico have been disconnected and another number, according to the person answering, is not Balico's. Messages left for Valstad have not been returned.
The grand jury report that highlighted an appearance of favoritism also pointed out a lack of checks and balances in the system. NEO-Affordable Housing Solutions was solely responsible for vetting applications and forwarding them to the city manager's office for approval, it noted.
For most of his tenure, that meant Oliva was approving applications and invoices submitted from a company reportedly managed by his daughters, but for which he served as president for some period of time. In corporate documents filed in 2008, well more than a year after he assumed the top management post in Hercules, , and its mailing address was 118 Nautical Cove, his home in Hercules.
Oliva and the city have denied that favoritism played any role in how the money was handed out. But a close review of loan files shows that the biggest borrower was a woman who had worked for NEO and later served as Oliva's personal assistant.
Of the hundred-some people to have received loans under the affordable housing program, the biggest single pot of money went to Oliva's administrative aide, Eguzki Olano.
By taking advantage of four separate programs over the course of three years, Olano was able to borrow more than half a million dollars from the affordable housing program that had employed her.
Olano was hired as an administrative assistant in the Hercules Police Department in 2004. A year later, she was earning $1,750 biweekly with NEO, according to pay records contained in court files. She and her husband owned a house in Hercules at the time that he would keep after their divorce, and in the fall of 2006, only a month after quit-claiming her interest in the family home, she obtained a $50,000 loan under the first-time homebuyer program.
The city's guidelines require that someone must not have owned a home for three years prior to the qualifying purchase. But Olano qualified under a state exclusion for single parents who, while married, owned or occupied a home with their former spouse.
In March 2007, she transferred from her job in the trailer offices of affordable housing to City Hall, where she served as Oliva's administrative assistant.
In the years to come, she would receive three more loans – $10,000 to fix up her house, $24,999 under the "Revitalization and Beautification" program and finally, in July 2009, a retention loan of $456,460 that called for her to begin making monthly payments of $1,900 that August.
Olano did not return a phone call and has not responded to a letter mailed to her Hercules address. A note left at her front door received no reply.
Good Money After Bad?
In 2004, when Oliva's newly formed company took over affordable housing in Hercules, the program consisted of a handful of packages aimed at providing loans for first-time homebuyers and low- to moderate-income people trying to fix up their houses. An employee plan offered deferred interest loans as an incentive to encourage city employees and school teachers to live locally.
But the loss mitigation and retention loans that started in 2007 marked a sea change for the affordable housing program, which began functioning like a bank and even acting as trustee on various loans.
Was the city throwing good money after bad in many of these loans programs?
With respect to the emergency loans, Fox said the intent was to hold on to the city's initial investment. But with the rapid decline in California real estate, the city soon found itself dabbling in deep water and playing landlord on properties that ultimately cost more to hold than they were worth.
In the succession of city managers – two of whom were fired and one of whom left to join the city's bond underwriter for a stint as a senior partner – hardly anyone left at City Hall can explain why a city poised for success now finds itself struggling to meet its bills for basic service. Over the past year, the city been forced to borrow from its long-term investment funds to pay its and has laid off close to half its employees, including cops.
Former Interim City Manager Long, the whistleblowing administrator who was not long after being fired at that December meeting for "insubordinate failure to follow instructions," has his own theories.
"This is a lot like Bell, (California)" he said. "The difference being that the guys in Bell knew not to empty the trough from which they fed."