By Amy Julia Harris, The Center for Investigative Reporting
RICHMOND, Calif. – Geneva Eaton has learned to deal with life in Hacienda: the stench of mold from the stairwell in front of her door, the winter she spent huddled at her stove for heat, the broken security gate that allows drug dealers and squatters to walk past the paid security guards and urinate on her doorstep. But the mice were too much.
For eight months, the 73-year-old woke to handfuls of half-dead mice wriggling in the glue traps lining the floors and cupboard of her apartment. In the space of a few hours, she caught 12. She put her nicest family belongings into storage. She went to bed with the lights on, afraid that the vermin she heard chewing through her walls would bite her in her sleep.
Officials at the Richmond Housing Authority know the Hacienda high-rise, one of its five public housing projects, is infested with mice and roaches. Residents have filed more than 80 complaints about it in the past year, according to agency records. But maintenance workers had done little to fix the problem. So for months, Eaton lived a daily routine: She threw out food she could barely afford. She called a maintenance line for help. She bathed her walls in bleach in the hopes of scaring away the insects.
Eaton lives in one of the worst apartment buildings managed by one of the worst public housing agencies in the country. Here in Richmond, some of the poorest, oldest and most vulnerable people in the Bay Area live in squalor and fear due to the housing agency’s mismanagement and neglect, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
There were at least 16 life-threatening health and safety violations at the five public housing projects managed by the housing authority, according to the two most recent years of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports. Seniors and disabled residents lived amid exposed wiring and missing smoke detectors and fire alarms. Most well-kempt housing projects don’t have these major health and safety violations, HUD says.
The authority’s executive director, Tim Jones, said he’s “running an operation on life support.” He blamed years of budget cuts from the federal government for the problems plaguing the housing authority and insisted that the agency is on the road to recovery. He said the problems come down to money.
Then there are the indignities that don’t show up in formal government reports: A woman with no legs giving herself sponge baths from her bathroom sink because maintenance workers didn’t install a simple safety bar in her shower. The fire department rescuing a paralyzed veteran from his third-floor apartment because the elevators didn’t work for three days. A disabled man who watched in horror for nearly a month as raw sewage slowly dripped from the neighbor’s bathroom upstairs.
Residents say their pleas for basic maintenance are ignored by officials paid to provide services to the poor.
CIR also found a number of cases in which housing authority workers claimed in official documents to have fixed problems. But they hadn’t.
“It’s just continual chaos here,” said Everett Dennis Lewis, a disabled resident of Hacienda. “The housing authority doesn’t give a crap.”
There are 4,055 public housing agencies in the United States, all overseen by HUD. Last year, the federal government labeled 44 as “troubled” — housing authorities that had such severe problems with their finances, management or living conditions that the government was on the brink of shutting them down.
Richmond was one of them.
In the most recent federal assessment reports, released in 2013, Richmond received a score of 47 out of 100, one of the lowest rankings in the country. It received failing marks for running up debt and failing to track its finances. Its executive director was deemed ineffective.
Richmond managed to receive a passing grade for the condition of most of its apartments. For the most part, the projects in Richmond aren’t as dilapidated as those in Detroit and New Orleans. But the breakdown in finances and leadership manifests itself daily at Richmond’s two largest – and worst – complexes as residents struggle with rodents, filth and security problems.
“They are a dysfunctional organization,” said Gerard Windt, division director of the HUD office that oversees Richmond.
The Richmond Housing Authority got $26 million in 2013 from the federal government to provide safe and decent housing for the needy. Richmond has 715 units of public housing for the poor, elderly and disabled. It also gives out Section 8 vouchers to subsidize rent for an additional 1,750 residents on the private market.
Residents who end up in Richmond’s public housing are predominantly old or disabled African Americans. More than three-quarters of them make less than 30 percent of Contra Costa County’s median income, or $18,750 a year, according to HUD. Many of them used to have jobs as grocery baggers, janitors and food service workers until they got old or sick. Some lived on the streets, and others struggle with addiction.
Residents don’t get their apartments for free. Almost 90 percent pay between $200 and $500 a month in rent, according to HUD. Eaton pays $262 a month to the housing authority.
All 4,000-plus housing authorities across America face these same slashed budgets. About 1 percent of those agencies find themselves on HUD’s troubled list.
Maintenance complaints neglected
When Juanita Hasnat moved into Nevin Plaza in 2011, the housing authority knew she was disabled. But her apartment didn’t have a simple disabled access fixture: a safety bar in the bathtub.
Hasnat told the housing authority about the oversight, thinking it would be a quick fix. But it took the agency nine months to install the safety bar, a fixture that costs less than $40 at The Home Depot.
The 47-year-old gave herself sponge baths out of her bathroom sink for months because she couldn’t maneuver out of her wheelchair and into her bathtub.
Hasnat said she repeatedly called the housing authority, and Jones directly, to ask for help.
“They all said, ‘We’re gonna get it taken care of,’ ” she said. “But I didn’t believe them. These people say one thing and do the opposite.”
Not too long ago, it was Hasnat who was taking care of the sick and elderly. She worked as a certified nursing assistant at hospitals in Richmond and El Cerrito, cleaning patients’ wounds and giving them sponge baths. She didn’t expect to be in the same position.
Hasnat was infected with the flesh-eating bacteria MRSA while on the job. It wormed its way through her body and destroyed the life she had known. Her left leg was amputated in 2010, and she lost her right leg three years later. Her doctor told her that she would never walk again. Her nursing career was over
“I wanted to die,” Hasnat said. “That was my life.”
With no job, Hasnat found herself on disability and in need of a cheap apartment. That’s how she ended up in Richmond’s seven-story Nevin Plaza.
Its 142 units are down the street from Richmond City Hall.
For three years, Hasnat has lived in a fifth-floor apartment that has no disability access.
Her hands bear scars from grating between the door frame and her wheelchair each time she comes and goes.
Records provided by the housing authority say that it has responded in a timely manner to resident complaints.
The authority’s version stands in stark contrast to that of its tenants.
Most residents don’t keep track of when they file a complaint; they get no receipt. Some verbally tell staff about their maintenance problems, but those reports don’t always make it into written records. To tell this story, CIR focused on the recent complaints of three residents who kept track of when they first notified housing authority officials.
It appears the agency is marking resident complaints as being addressed when they’re not. In all three cases, the authority’s records indicate that problems in their apartments were fixed. Residents say the issues were not resolved.
Wardell Jones is a blind Air Force veteran. He’s 83 years old. His Nevin Plaza apartment is covered in canvases he has learned to paint at the local blind center. They are full of brightly colored landscapes. His daughter comes by almost every day to fill his palette with paint.
His heater has been broken for more than a year, he said.
The housing authority said it fixed his heat in October, paying $140 for new parts, according to records. But Jones says his heat hasn’t worked since he first complained more than a year ago. As the temperature dipped near freezing, he would feel his way to his kitchen and use his open oven to combat the cold.
Jones lives about 10 feet from the apartment of the housing authority’s live-in maintenance worker.
For Eaton, the housing authority said it eliminated the swarms of cockroaches in her apartment on Oct. 8. However, a CIR reporter visited Eaton that day and saw the housing authority contractor enter her apartment. He walked around and acknowledged the problem. He left and didn’t come back. That maintenance visit was marked as a completed work order, according to housing authority records.
When Everett Dennis Lewis had mice infesting his apartment in January last year, the housing authority’s records say it sent an exterminator within two weeks of his complaint. But Lewis said exterminators never came, and he ended up buying traps himself.
Lewis, who is 61, said he has had nothing but problems since moving into Hacienda almost two years ago. Last year, the toilet in the room above him leaked raw sewage through the ceiling into his bathroom. It dripped on him from above.
He called the housing authority’s emergency maintenance line, and a worker told Lewis that they would fix it. But when nothing had happened after a week, Lewis called the same maintenance hotline five or six times a day.
“I really annoyed them,” he said. “I just got tired of the poop falling on me.”
He said the leak finally was repaired after almost a month of multiple daily complaints.
But in the housing authority’s records, Lewis’ complaint shows up once, and it says the agency fixed the problem the day after he complained.
Tim Jones, the agency’s executive director, declined to answer questions about the resident complaints and many other specifics about conditions at Hacienda and Nevin Plaza.
Other residents tell similar stories. A caregiver for a 68-year-old man said water dripped for months in his living room from a corroded exposed pipe in the ceiling. The lock on one woman’s front door hasn’t worked for four years. Another resident tried to get his leaky shower handle fixed. He ended up with a hole in his wall, no water in his shower for two months and a $50 bill for asbestos removal that he had to pay.
Failed promises, fading hopes
The Hacienda complex is a tan, six-story high-rise in central Richmond, off Roosevelt and Barrett avenues. Public housing residents in Richmond call it the most problematic of the city’s five complexes.
Feral cats mill around the ivy that surrounds Hacienda, feasting on the mice that infest the building. Drug dealers glide through a perpetually broken security gate at the front of the complex and roam around with impunity. Squatters break locks and occupy the abandoned apartments on the sixth floor. Chronic roof leaks have allowed blue and green mold to spread on the outer walls, covering the ceilings of Hacienda’s sixth-floor walkways.
Drug dealers and prostitutes routinely sneak into the building from three different entrances.
Hacienda has paid security guards, but they admit that the place intimidates them.
“I’m scared to do my patrols,” said Arielle Jackson, a security guard for Cypress Private Security.
The housing authority pays Cypress $300,000 a year to secure both Nevin Plaza and Hacienda. Richmond police Officer Giulia Colbacchini said, “The security guards here are a joke.”
Cypress declined to comment for this story.
There are a dozen light posts in Hacienda’s courtyard, but for more than two years, none worked. At night, Rhonda Marshall stumbled in her wheelchair getting from her apartment to a back gate across the courtyard, rolling off uneven paths in the darkness.
“It’s so dark you can’t see your hands in front of you,” the 58-year-old said.
The housing authority paid $1,850 to a contractor to install new light fixtures in Hacienda’s courtyard in August 2011. But residents say the lights worked for only two or three days, and after that, they tolerated the pitch black. The housing authority finally fixed the lights in the courtyard in December. Residents say they have complained since 2011. CIR has records going back one year, which verify the complaints stretch back at least that far.
On the sixth floor, exposed wires dangle from an abandoned electrical closet, a few feet from an inhabited unit. The wires are within reach of children who visit their grandparents in the complex.
Residents call Hacienda the “Haci-hellhole” or “Bedbug City.” Nearly everyone has a story of bedbugs, and residents collect them in mason jars to show to housing authority maintenance workers, in an attempt to prove they aren’t making up the source of their pockmarked arms.
Almost one-fifth of the apartments in Hacienda were infested with bedbugs, according to the most recent federal inspection in 2012. Exterminators have been called at least nine times in the last year, but residents say the place still is overrun with the blood-sucking pests.
Residents used to have more hope. In 2009, the bedbug situation became so dire at Hacienda that residents signed a petition, stormed the City Council chamber and “raised so much hell” that the housing authority was forced to fumigate the entire building, said Eaton, the Hacienda resident who struggled with mice and cockroaches.
No one wants to do that now. Walk around Hacienda and Nevin Plaza, and almost every resident will tell you a personal anecdote about the housing authority’s failed promises to provide the basics.
Eaton has lost any hope that the agency will help. After months of complaints, contractors gave her a few sticky pads for the mice in her apartment. She bought her own mouse poison, and the infestation has improved.
“Who even wants to try anymore?” she said. “I wanna go someplace else, but I don’t have anywhere else to go. They treat us like animals here.”
It’s a feeling shared by many residents.
“I’m afraid that the building’s going to come down on me,” Marshall said. “I want out of here.”
Structural dangers noted
Federal inspectors worried about the building’s foundation, too.
Cracks snake their way along the seams of Hacienda. In early January, reporters saw the walkway on Hacienda’s sixth floor separating from the main building by almost 2 inches. The cracks are so large that you can see down to the fifth floor. These were some of the same problems inspectors warned of years earlier.
In 2009, HUD noted that Hacienda’s foundation was separating from the walls. One- to 4-inch gaps were cited on all six floors, according to federal reports.
HUD officials gave the separated foundation its most extreme rating on the books. Major foundation problems can lead to the instability of an entire building. It’s unclear whether Richmond has a plan to make repairs.
Federal inspectors in 2009 and then again in 2011 also warned of severe problems with the roof. In 2009, an entire electrical closet’s walls were “saturated with water mold and mildew” due to the leaking roof, they said.
The housing authority has hired contractors to stop the roof from leaking since 2006, but it hasn’t gotten fixed. Even after the housing authority paid the most recent contractor $8,000 a few months ago, the roof still was leaking, according to a housing authority receipt. One contractor didn’t even finish the job years before, according to housing authority records.
The damage proved to be a blessing for squatters.
At one point, the housing authority had cleared out residents on the sixth floor. Security is almost nonexistent, so squatters have a practically guaranteed place to crash.
A squatter named Steve Muccular recently took reporters through the building, showing them how to break into Hacienda through a busted security gate in the front of the building. Security guards don’t bother to venture up to the sixth floor, he said, so he camped in the laundry room for months.
“No one was supposed to be up here,” Muccular said. “But they don’t check. This is a fucked-up building for sure.”
An abandoned unit on the sixth floor had clear signs of squatting in January – a broken security door and an apartment full of old birthday cake, beer bottles and tattered clothes. Months earlier, workers said they had secured that very unit to prevent squatting, records show.
Unable to get basic help from the housing authority, residents often turn to prayer.
On a recent Tuesday, about 15 Nevin Plaza residents gathered in the first-floor common room for their afternoon prayer group.
“There are a lot of things going on in here that people’s unhappy with but they don’t want to say because they don’t want to get kicked out,” said Eddie Williams, the resident pastor who lives on the second floor. “But since we started praying, people’s not as scared.”
Residents go around in a circle giving testimonials and recounting their challenges during the week. One woman thanks God for helping her overcome a painkiller addiction. Another is grateful for a successful hip surgery. Then it’s 81-year-old Helen “Mama” Hall’s turn.
“I thank God for giving me discernments and opening my eyes to see more stuff going on in here,” Hall said. She is a self-appointed volunteer security guard who has taken it upon herself to police Nevin Plaza against criminals sneaking into the building. “I thank God for giving me strength to look out for this place every day, because no one else is going to.”
There was a chorus of amens.
“We all gotta look up to God for help,” Williams said. “Because when you look down, it ain’t good where we are.”
The piece was edited by Andrew Donohue and Mark Katches and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee. Reporter Amy Julia Harris can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting in partnership with the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED. Learn more about CIR’s work.