Plans to build a new home for a paralyzed Army veteran at no cost to his family have been put on hold by the local homeowners association.
The reason, said the president of the nonprofit homebuilding group, is fear that the home would drag down property values in the neighborhood.
The Evans, Ga., home was to be built for Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Gittens (left), who was struck in 2008 by an IED blast on his second tour of duty in Iraq. The trauma left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to speak.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. "This is the total opposite of what usually happens," said John Gonsalves, president and founder of Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that builds homes for injured veterans. "We've met every requirement they've asked for," he told AOL Real Estate during a phone interview.
Construction was to begin on Friday, but Gonsalves said the homeowners association at the last minute filed a cease-and-desist order on the project, claiming that he had failed to file all the necessary paperwork.
"This could have been a done deal had they just gotten us the paperwork," said Rick Trump, president of the Knob Hill Homeowners Association, during a phone interview. "Who's really to blame here? Is it that we blocked them or that they're disorganized and don't have everything they need?"
While Trump maintains that the HOA's only contention is the paperwork, he said that some homeowners are concerned that the Gittens project will drag down the value of their homes, either because of the style of the home or the size.
The home will include several disabled-accessible features to accommodate Gittens, who currently is bedridden. But the neighbors' major complaint, Gonsalves said, is that the home is only 2,785 square feet, while other homes in the area are in the 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot range. The discrepancy should be a moot point, though, he said, because the minimum suggested size of homes for the area is only 2,700 square feet (see the supporting document here).
In reality, though, the HOA needn't have worried, according to New York appraiser Alice Palmisano.
The claim that smaller houses drag down neighboring property values is unfounded, she said. "It usually works the other way around, where the smaller house typically sees a boost in home value," but there's no evidence that smaller homes hurt the value of larger ones. Given the special nature of the home, it wouldn't even be used as the basis for a "comparable property," she said.
"Just because a custom home is built for a handicapped person does not mean that home can't sell to a conventional buyer," she added. "And considering the circumstances, it sounds kind of mean-spirited."
But Trump argues that the dispute is simply a matter of upholding HOA guidelines, and neither he nor the association has anything against the Gittens family.
"If they leave, that's the family's choice, but we're honored to have them in the neighborhood," he said.
For Gittens' wife, Sharon, the message conveyed has been less hospitable.
"They just don't want us here," she said during a phone interview. Gittens moved to Knob Hill with her husband and children last year and has been renting an apartment in the development. Her husband's military career began in 1988 with a tour of duty in Kuwait during Desert Storm and ended in 2010 when he was forced to take medical retirement.
She says that she doesn't accept HOA members' claims that their new home is too small for the area, as there are other properties in the development that are even smaller. She took particular umbrage to the association's request that they add a second floor to the home.
"My husband doesn't need that. He's wheelchair bound," she said.
But no matter the outcome in the Knob Hill dispute, Gonsalves said that his organization will keep their promise and build the Gittenses a new home.
"This home is about freedom and independence adapted to the Gittenses' needs," he said. "But it's also about roots. Luckily we can enjoy the [American] dream because of people like Sgt. Gittens. So who deserves it more than him?"
Gonsalves expects to make an announcement on the future of the project early this week.
UPDATE: Late on Monday, Homes for Our Troops issued a press statement in which Sharon Gittens confirmed that she will be leaving the Knob Hill development. The Gittenses are currently exploring other options in the area. John Gonsalves, president of Homes for Our Troops, has agreed to continue the project in a new location.