As Suzanne Bergeron Stonehouse and her husband rake up leaves in their front yard, a lawn sign is still propped up in the flower bed, advertising the name of the contractor that was supposed to do flood repairs on their home.
“I may burn it one day,” said Bergeron Stonehouse, whose home was damaged during the 2017 spring floods.
The couple, who live in Deux-Montagnes, west of Montreal, worry they will be forced to pay back nearly $90,000 in financial aid after the company they hired didn’t do the work.
“This has really floored us,” said Bergeron Stonehouse, 68, sitting beside her husband, John, 71, in the front foyer of their home, a stack of emails and letters from their contractor and the government piled in front of her.
The couple hired Renoka Construction in 2019 and gave it a down payment to do repairs, which included raising the house and redoing the foundation. The couple also signed a mandate, giving Renoka the authorization to negotiate directly with the province on their behalf.
But the work was never done and the company is no longer in business.
“The reason we went with the government for the extra money is because we don’t have it. And they expect us to have it now?” said Bergeron Stonehouse.
Retirement savings at risk
When Bergeron Stonehouse hired Renoka, she thought the repairs would be done immediately as it was considered emergency work. Instead, she says the contractor kept postponing, first to work on homes damaged by the floods in Île Bizard and, later, due to the pandemic.
Frustrated by the delays and worried about rising construction costs, the couple tried to cancel the contract last fall, but Renoka refused.
In early 2021, Bergeron Stonehouse sent a legal demand letter, pointing out that since no work had been done, the money they paid as an advance should be reimbursed. The company never responded.
Last month, Bergeron Stonehouse noticed Renoka no longer had an RBQ licence. In Quebec, anyone who does construction work must hold a licence from the the Régie du bâtiment du Québec.
A few weeks later, the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the flood assistance program, asked Bergeron Stonehouse and her husband to pay back the money. They have until Nov. 7 to do so. If they want to appeal the decision, they have until the beginning of December.
“We did everything according to what was asked of us,” said Bergeron Stonehouse, who is worried they’ll have to dip into their retirement savings to cover the costs.
“It makes you feel very small, like you don’t count.”
Contractor says he’s owed cancellation fees
When CBC contacted Renoka vice-president Georges Samman this summer, he blamed the government for any work delays.
He said it’s up to the province to approve contracts and he was still waiting to be paid for projects he completed in 2018.
“We don’t start work until a minimum 60 per cent is paid out.”
In the spring of 2020, Samman said he caught COVID-19.
For the rest of that year, all of Renoka’s major projects were put on hold.
In 2021, lumber prices and other construction costs soared due to the pandemic, which meant many contracts had to be renegotiated.
“It’s really a big headache,” said Samman.
The Stonehouses’ contract was worth a total of $192,000.
Samman said he explained to them that it could not be cancelled because Renoka had already put down a deposit for several subcontractors to do structural, electrical and architectural work.
“My contracts are all binded to 30 per cent cancellation fees,” he said. “That’s even if we didn’t do nothing. So you cancel the agreement, you have to pay 30 per cent straight up because you cannot just cancel.”
Bergeron Stonehouse says she doesn’t have anything in her contract or in the small print that spells that out.
Conflict of interest?
This is not the first time Samman has come under scrutiny.
Back in 2018, an Île-Bizard homeowner alleged his government-authorized evaluator used his position to get Samman, an acquaintance and business partner, the contract to repair his home.
The homeowner felt it was a conflict of interest and wanted a new damage inspection done.
Bergeron Stonehouse said she did not see the media coverage until after she had advanced their flood compensation money to Renoka as a deposit for future work.
Once Bergeron Stonehouse began to have problems with Renoka, she asked the government for help.
It suggested the couple hire another contractor and start from scratch.
“We have no money,” said Bergeron Stonehouse, who asked the province, “Are you going to pay twice?”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Security told CBC in an email that it cannot recommend contractors. It is up to the homeowner to hire them. However, citizens can file a complaint to the Consumer Protection Office or the police if they have reason to believe they have been defrauded.
Business partners at odds
Bergeron Stonehouse and her husband have considered taking Renoka to court, but are worried that would drag on for years.
“It’s hard to sue somebody when you can’t find them,” said Bergeron Stonehouse, who was unable to reach anyone from the company for months.
A few weeks ago, CBC tracked Samman down.
In a terse phone call, he explained that he’s no longer with Renoka and is no longer doing renovation work.
“I am out. I don’t want to be involved,” he said.
When asked how the company lost its RBQ licence or why it was no longer operating, Samman told CBC it was nobody’s business.
He referred any questions about customer contracts to Rabih Kassouf, Renoka’s president.
Kassouf appeared to be shocked when CBC told him Samman said he was no longer a partner.
Kassouf said he hadn’t seen Samman since he had been sick with COVID-19 in 2020 and needed to sit down with him, but there appears to have been a falling out.
He confirmed the company no longer had an RBQ number.
“Now is a bad time,” said Kassouf. “We’re waiting a little bit to see what we’re going to do.”
Kassouf appeared to be aware of the Stonehouses’ demand letter and said he was checking with his insurance company to see if the money could be reimbursed.
Hoping to hold onto their home
The Stonehouses’ lawyer has since been in touch with Kassouf to set up a meeting with his lawyer.
The couple is cautiously optimistic.
If they aren’t able to get the money back from Renoka, they hope they may be able to negotiate with the government about paying back a lower amount. They would then decontaminate the basement themselves.
If the province doesn’t agree to that and they have to repay the full money, the couple is worried their budget will become too tight.
“We just want to finish our old age here,” said Bergeron Stonehouse.