By Amy Julia Harris
The Center for Investigative Reporting
Richmond’s city manager has ordered inspections of all 715 public housing units in the city following an investigation that found elderly and disabled residents living in deplorable conditions.
City Manager Bill Lindsay also said he will fire the security firm in charge of patrolling the two worst public housing complexes. There, drug dealers and squatters have easy access, as security guards regularly stay glued to their cellphone screens and rarely patrol the properties.
Lindsay made the decisions just days after The Center for Investigative Reporting detailed filth and vermin in Richmond Housing Authority properties and the agency’s failure to respond to residents’ complaints. For years, tenants say, they’ve stayed quiet, often cowed by a fear of retribution from housing authority staff.
But the residents emerged in full force this week at a City Council hearing following the publication of the series. They recited horror story after horror story: Leaking sewage. Mice and cockroach infestations. Poor treatment by staff.
In the coming weeks, an outside contractor will ask residents whether they have made maintenance requests in the past and whether staff responded. They also will ask about any current problems in residents’ apartments. CIR found numerous cases in which housing authority contractors marked problems as being fixed when they weren’t.
“The basic purpose of the inspection will be to determine whether each unit is meeting a high standard for decent, safe and sanitary housing,” Lindsay said.
Since 2009, Richmond has been on the federal government’s list of the worst housing agencies in the country. The agency is currently about $7 million in debt and owes the federal government $2.2 million for past contracting mistakes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has called Tim Jones, the executive director, ineffective. HUD has threatened to take control of the Richmond agency if it doesn’t improve its management and finances.
For months, Jones, who has been the executive director for almost nine years, blamed problems on his predecessor and the federal government.
This week, he did an abrupt about-face. Jones stared down a horde of angry residents and City Council members Tuesday night, and he apologized.
“To all our program participants, accept our personal and professional apologies,” he said. “There is absolutely room for improvement.”
The most severe problems are at Hacienda, a 150-unit high-rise in central Richmond built in 1966. The building’s foundation is splitting apart, according to federal auditors.
Cracks snake their way along walkways and floors. Contractors have been hired to fix the leaking roof since at least 2006, but it is still leaking, according to authority records. Black and green mold and stalactites hang from Hacienda’s sixth-floor ceiling. In its most recent inspection, nearly a fifth of the units were infested with cockroaches.
Jones conceded that Hacienda is uninhabitable. He said the building should be torn down because “it just doesn’t make sense to put that much money into that structure.”
Jones said he is meeting with HUD soon to ask for permission to demolish or shut down Hacienda. HUD must sign off before the housing authority can give residents vouchers to find alternative housing.
The city said it hopes to have a plan for Hacienda’s future within three months.
Residents, who in the meantime continue to live amid the poor conditions, say the changes are a long time coming.
“It’s a travesty that they let it get this bad,” said Connie Gary, 71, a Hacienda resident. “When we complained before, it was like we didn’t exist. They just didn’t care.”
For five years, Gary lived in a leaky apartment on Hacienda’s top floor that was overrun with mold. She complained repeatedly and described how water seeped in from her roof and dripped on her belongings. She was forced to put pots all over her floors to catch the water. The mold was so thick, she said, that she could barely open her door. She eventually moved out after calling HUD directly.
City Council members expressed concern that housing authority staff were rude to tenants, making them afraid to come forward with complaints.
“In 2014, I would never have thought that we would have a housing authority that is predominantly African-American-supervised that would treat their own people with so much disrespect,” said Councilman Nathaniel Bates.
Much of the blame was pointed at Kathleen Jones, the agency’s asset operations manager. Tim Jones admitted at the hearing that he knew Kathleen Jones (the two are not related) has been disrespectful to residents. “Her delivery lacks tact,” he said.
HUD auditors in the past faulted Tim Jones for not disciplining his staff. “Overall management of staff is poor and staff who do not perform adequately are not disciplined,” auditors wrote in a 2012 review.
Kathleen Jones is a top official at the agency. She deals day to day with tenant issues, including lease enforcement and rent collection.
She did not return calls for comment. But the one time she talked to CIR, months ago, she likened her job to being “an unemancipated public slave.”
After the City Council meeting, Tim Jones sent an email to all his staff demanding that they be courteous to the people they are paid to serve.
“Concerns have been expressed that Housing Authority Staff members have been verbally abusive and rude in their interactions with program participants and the general public,” Jones wrote. “Anything less than exemplary customer service will not be tolerated and will be cause for disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
Resident Jaycine Scott said that security has been a constant issue in Nevin Plaza, another housing authority development.
“We deserve safe and sanitary housing,” Scott told the City Council. “Let me address the safe aspect. It doesn’t exist. Our security guards are a joke.”
The company that runs security at Hacienda and Nevin Plaza, Cypress Private Security, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some Richmond officials also are considering reaching out to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to hear how the city cleaned house after it landed on HUD’s list of troubled housing agencies. San Francisco and Richmond were the only two California cities on the list of 44 troubled agencies nationwide last year.
Many City Council members have wondered why the maintenance and security problems were allowed to reach a breaking point after residents had complained about the problems for years.
“Bring in some people who are professional, who know what they’re doing, and clean up the whole mess,” Bates said. “When you have the people who created the mess trying to clean it up, it’s going to be inadequate. If heads have to roll, so be it.”
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.
This story was produced by the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit cironline.org. Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.