Originally posted at The Center for Investigative Reporting.
By Amy Julia Harris.
The residents of Richmond’s worst public housing complex likely won’t have to endure cockroach infestations, mold and broken elevators much longer.
The Richmond City Council voted Wednesday night to give residents of the 150-unit Hacienda complex vouchers to move to private housing, allowing them to escape a building that the Richmond Housing Authority’s own executive director called uninhabitable.
“Clearly, we’ve failed in some of our public housing,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “We have to move on Hacienda. Our residents can wait no longer.”
There’s still no actual plan for how to relocate residents or how to pay for it. In two weeks, City Manager Bill Lindsay is supposed to return to the City Council with those details.
The planned evacuation of Hacienda comes weeks after The Center for Investigative Reporting found widespread problems in Richmond’s public housing, including deplorable conditions for residents and mismanagement and financial abuse at the housing authority.
Richmond has been labeled on one of the worst housing authorities in the country since 2009, and the federal government has threatened to take it over this year if key benchmarks aren’t met.
Tim Jones, the housing authority’s executive director, estimated it would cost $489,000 to relocate all the Hacienda residents and at least $19 million to fix the maintenance problems at the complex.
Jones said the agency would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for money for about 130 vouchers to move residents from Hacienda, a six-story high-rise in central Richmond. But if HUD doesn’t provide the money, Lindsay said the city would foot the bill and “make it work.”
If residents are moved, they will need to find housing on the private market with Section 8 vouchers. Jones said the agency would work with tenants to help them find new places to live.
The city still is considering bulldozing Hacienda, whose top floor is all but vacant because of chronic roof leaks, or selling it to a developer to make renovations.
The housing authority is currently about $7 million in debt and would need to borrow money for the resident relocation from the city’s day-to-day budget.
Before the vote, the City Council heard more details about infestation and maintenance breakdowns at Richmond’s two largest housing complexes, Hacienda and Nevin Plaza.
In response to the CIR investigation, the city manager ordered a private contractor to inspect Richmond’s five public housing complexes.
“Infestation is prominent, whether it be cockroaches, mice or rodents,” said Michael Petragallo, an inspector with Sterling Co. Inc. “Infestation is a serious and persistent problem.”
He said the most serious concerns were at Hacienda, where the elevators weren’t working, there are plumbing problems and old windows pose serious risks. Most residents are elderly or disabled.
The inspectors also found that nearly half of residents said their problems weren’t being fixed by paid contractors.
Jones said the inspectors surveyed 471 residents about their experience with the maintenance department. Forty-five percent said contractors didn’t resolve the maintenance problems when they showed up, and 26 percent said the contractors did a sloppy job. Jones said those numbers needed to go up, otherwise “we’re not doing our job.”
Public housing residents continued to stream forward to complain about serious health problems from mold, with many pleading with the city to move them out of their apartments. More than 30 residents signed up to speak.
“I still got black mold in my place,” said Larry Joe Washington, a Hacienda resident. “They ain’t done nothing. I’m not going to die in that place waiting for someone to do something.”
Petragallo said he couldn’t say how much mold there is at all the properties, but “it exists and is something to be considered.” He said there was discoloration that could be mold, mildew or water damage “throughout 70 percent of the property at Hacienda.”
Other residents like Lisa Fishman said the problems aren’t confined to Hacienda.
Fishman, who lives in Nevin Plaza, said she is struggling from years of black mold exposure. She had a doctor’s note from August saying the housing authority should do a test for mold, which posed an immediate health hazard.
“The housing authority refused to do a test. They refused to admit there was black mold in the building, and they refused to move me,” Fishman said. “Kathleen Jones pointed at my cat litter box and said I should tell my doctor about that.”
Kathleen Jones is the asset operations manager and is responsible for collecting rent and enforcing leases. She is not related to Tim Jones. She continued to be the focus of resident frustration.
At Wednesday’s meeting, residents described how Kathleen Jones had cursed them out, made demeaning comments about their personal lives and had a general nasty attitude. Earlier this week, CIR found that Kathleen Jones’ nephew, a resident manager for the housing authority, more than doubled his salary for the last two years with overtime and other pay perks.
On Wednesday night, officials announced that she was on leave from the housing authority.
In a previous interview, Kathleen Jones has said she’s the victim of a “witch hunt.”
At the meeting, the housing authority’s board – made up of the seven City Council members and two tenant representatives – discussed whether to issue a vote of no confidence for Kathleen Jones and Tim Jones.
“The Richmond Housing Authority is a dysfunctional organization, and if they were a private business, they’d be out of business,” said Councilman Nathaniel Bates, who brought forward the no-confidence motion. “Until we get a clean administrative staff in that organization, it’s going to be business as usual.”
The motion did not pass.
Auditors have blamed many of the housing authority’s troubles on a breakdown in leadership and oversight. They called Tim Jones ineffective, saying he was not disciplining staff and had failed to improve the agency’s financial troubles.
Tim Jones came to Richmond in 2005 to rescue the housing authority from many of the same problems it faces today. But under his watch, the housing authority plunged further into debt and has had a series of contracting and personnel scandals.
He’s blamed the problems on a lack of HUD funding. He’s continued to have the support of his boss, the city manager. Lindsay has said he has faith Tim Jones can turn the agency around.
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This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.