ST. PETERSBURG --- Stretched across the front of Tim and Hyun Kims’ two-year-old house is a big banner with the name of a developer and the words:
"I have to fix my new house."
Some of what needs fixing is instantly apparent. The front steps are too narrow and too steep. Handrails are missing. A big crack has appeared on the porch ceiling.
That’s not all. An engineering firm said the house is so rife with construction defects and code violations that it would be better to tear it down instead of trying to fix the problems.
Ever since they moved in 15 months ago, the Kims have been battling with James Landers and his Aspen Venture Group, a company that specializes in "urban infill" projects in St. Petersburg and Tampa. During the last boom, Landers developed townhome communities on both sides of the bay. Now he is concentrating on single family homes in St. Petersburg that cost as much as $2.7 million.
Landers accuses the Kims of relentless "cyber-bullying" that includes YouTube videos and scathing reviews on the website Ripoff Report.
"It is nothing short of online terrorism where they are using this issue to extort our business," Landers said. "We have bent over backwards to handle any legitimate issues they bring up and they refuse."
The Kims say they had to resort to such tactics because Landers and his general contractor have refused to fix anything but minor problems. They also say they have gotten no help from the city of St. Petersburg even though the city’s building official toured the house in December and acknowledged code and workmanship issues.
Why didn’t city officials catch the problems before issuing a certificate of occupancy? That’s because no city inspectors ever checked the property — and under a provision of state law they didn’t have to.
Now 48, Landers is among the developers who survived the housing crash though not without some hits to his finances and business reputation.
In 2007, owners of Tampa’s DeLeon Townhomes sued Landers, two of his companies and a contractor, alleging that improperly installed trusses had caused the floors to sag.
"It was not catastrophic but noticeable enough to affect the real estate values," said attorney Edward Kuchinski, who represented the owners and won a jury award for repair costs.
In 2009, Landers was among those sued by 20 owners in South Tampa’s Villas of Horatio. Due to faulty construction techniques, the townhomes had suffered a "pervasive amount of water intrusion," attorney Steve Walker said. A settlement was reached just as a jury was about to hear the case.
There was other litigation. In 2011, Community Bank of Manatee won a $68,275 judgment against Landers and his High Point Development LLC. In 2012, the lender for a townhome project in Carrollwood won a $2 million deficiency judgment against Landers, among others.
Three years ago, with Tampa Bay’s housing market well on the way to recovery, Landers started Aspen Venture Group in St. Petersburg. Aspen signs began popping up at construction sites in upscale areas like Snell Isle and the Old Northeast.
In 2016, Landers caused a buzz when he announced plans for 35 high-end yet affordable townhomes in the city’s trendy Edge District. But he angered buyers when he abruptly scrapped the project last summer, blaming permitting delays and rising costs. A smaller townhome project in which he was involved — four New York-style brownstones in downtown St. Petersburg — never got out of the ground either.
The Kims knew nothing about Landers’ background in early 2016 when they contracted with his HCI 301 LLC to buy a two-story house it was building in northeast St. Petersburg. But they had looked around and decided "we liked the aesthetics of Aspen homes," Tim Kim said.
Work on the house continued beyond what the couple thought was supposed to be the August 2016 completion date. That December, Hyun Kim emailed Landers.
"Obviously ball dropped on our end," he replied. "No excuses on the delays. We have failed in this area for sure. We had several unforeseen events hit us all at the same time that have had a huge impact."
In January 2017, the Kims closed on the house for $445,476 and decided to move in although the rear deck was not finished. At first, the main problem they noticed was the interior paint. In several areas, it was peeling off in long, rubbery strips.
"The paint got us distracted from all the other stuff," Tim says.
Both he and his wife work at home — he does product branding, she’s a global team leader for a tech company — and the more time they spent in the house, the more "stuff" they found. Cracks in the walls. Kitchen sink not attached to the counter. Problems with the AC, including no central air vent in the bonus room.
Last April, they put up the banner.
"Nice banner d----head," Alan Hudson, the general contractor, emailed Tim Kim.
Workers began to fix some of the issues, among them adding a railing to an interior stairway although they glued rather than screwed it to the wall, the Kims say. They continued to find problems.
Last August, in an email referring to the banner, Landers asked the couple to take down "your slanderous sign." He suggested three options: Remove the banner, litigate the issues in court or accept his offer to buy back the house and "go our separate ways."
The Kims said they turned down the offer — which Landers says he made three times — because home prices had risen so much they didn’t think they could get anything comparable in size and location. They hired a home inspector that documented dozens of problems including exposed wiring, stairs not to code and windows that weren’t impact resistant.
It was not until last fall, during correspondence with city staffers, that the Kims discovered the city never inspected the house before issuing the certificate of occupancy.
Under state law, so-called "private providers" can handle inspections as long as the local government allows the practice. It is fairly common in cities like St. Petersburg where city inspectors are stretched thin because of so much new construction.
Landers hired a private provider firm headed by architect Peter Goldhammer, who has had issues of his own. In 2006, the Florida Board of Architecture reprimanded him and fined him $2,000 for signing and sealing plans that were not his own and that referenced an outdated building code. Two years ago, he paid a St. Petersburg church $5,000 after botching plans he drew up for a renovation.
To do the actual inspection of the Kims’ house, Goldhammer hired inspector John Walker, who approved all of the work. Walker could not be reached for comment.
"I don’t want to talk about that now, I’m sorry," Goldhammer told a reporter and hung up.
A few days before last Christmas, city planning director Dave Goodwin and building official Rick Dunn visited the Kims’ home.
"Regarding this house, there were a lot of workmanship issues but a few code issues also that we discussed," Dunn said. Although the Kims are legally are responsible for code violations now, the city didn’t take any action because of possible litigation between them and Landers.
In February, the couple hired an engineering firm that chronicled yet more problems and concluded: "We are of the opinion that this property should be rebuilt instead of remediated."
Now, things are at a standstill. Landers says the Kims won’t let his workers back in the house, are harassing some of his clients and attempting to extort a "ridiculous amount of money" from him.
The Kims say they only want fair market value for the house plus closing costs, moving expenses and reimbursement for the money they’ve spent on repairs.
"We would give back the house," Hyun Kim said. "We are emotionally exhausted and don’t want the house anymore."
They have no intention of taking down their banner, which they say has prompted other people to come forward with complaints about Aspen. Attorney Lee Rightymer said one of his clients cancelled a contract for a house with a Landers-related company though it was on "amicable" terms. Diane Leaghty, who bought an Aspen townhome in the Old Northeast last year, said the project was marked by delays, poor communication and unfinished items.
"I’m not happy with the experience I had with the Aspen Group," she said.
Dunn, the building officials, says he too has heard complaints.
"There seems to be a challenge on some of those Aspen projects, not building code issues as much as in some cases poor workmanship," he said. "That’s an issue for the owner and the contractor to work out."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate