By Amy Julia Harris.
The Richmond City Council decided unanimously tonight to ask the federal government for money to evacuate the city’s most dilapidated public housing project, saying it didn’t have the nearly $700,000 for the move.
The City Council now plans to ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees public housing, for vouchers to relocate the roughly 130 senior and disabled residents of Hacienda and then sell the property to a private developer.
This isn’t the speedy evacuation that City Council members envisioned when they voted in March to relocate residents as soon as possible after hearing their desperate stories of mold, bedbugs and cockroach infestations.
It likely will be more than three months before residents could begin being removed from a building that the city housing authority’s executive director has deemed uninhabitable.
“This sounds like the better way to go,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “We can get more vouchers and get HUD to provide the relocation money. ”
Evacuating residents is expected to cost more than $657,000 in moving fees, storage costs and staff time. The Richmond Housing Authority is currently about $7 million in debt and would have to borrow the money from the cash-strapped city of Richmond, which has a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Paying for the evacuation would sap 10 percent of the city’s general fund reserve.
The city’s relocation report also said an immediate move could be negative for residents and further hurt the city’s public housing program.
“In the short term, vacating the project can cause disruption to the lives of the tenants in residence,” according to the report.
City officials said it would be expensive to move residents out one at a time, as maintenance and security issues would still have to be dealt with as long as any residents remained. HUD also could penalize the housing authority for having empty units, since it wouldn’t have approved moving the residents out.
The city is now banking on the federal government. It plans to apply for money with HUD through an application process that takes three months to complete. And there is the chance that federal officials could say no.
The evacuation plans come after The Center for Investigative Reporting exposed neglect and financial abuse within the Richmond Housing Authority. The agency has landed on the federal government’s list of the worst housing agencies in the country since 2009 for breakdowns in its finances and management, according to HUD audits.
The most severe problems for residents are at Hacienda, a concrete high-rise built in 1966. Inspections stretching back years show that the building has been wearing down from maintenance problems that weren’t addressed. Cracks snake their way along the walkways and floors. Contractors have been hired to fix the roof since at least 2006, but it is still leaking. Stalactites 2 inches long drip from Hacienda’s sixth floor – 23 units have sat vacant on the top floor for two years.
A private inspector hired by the housing authority after CIR’s stories ran said half of the units in Hacienda were infested with roaches.
Another inspector hired to test for mold spoke tonight and said there was mold in 23 of the 28 units tested at Hacienda. A fourth of those units have to be fully treated.
“We can’t stay in there,” said Geneva Eaton, a longtime Hacienda resident. “But I want to make sure when we get a Section 8 voucher that we have somewhere to go.”
But getting residents out of Hacienda is a complicated process. To get federal funding for the move, the housing authority must prove that it is too expensive to keep up Hacienda.
City Council members blamed HUD for the problems at Hacienda, saying years of budget cuts left them in this situation.
“HUD is simply starving us for funds,” said Councilman Tom Butt. “They want you to run a Champagne project on a light beer budget.”
In 2011, it was estimated that fixing Hacienda would cost $19.4 million, which was just shy of HUD’s threshold for agreeing that it is beyond repair. Richmond plans to get an updated renovation cost.
“It’s a very high threshold,” said Ophelia Basgal, regional administrator for the HUD office that oversees California. There are numerous regulations that force an agency to prove that “if you’re going to demolish or dispose, it’s been determined that it’s cheaper to do that than to try to make repairs.”
Basgal called applications like the one Richmond is submitting “very rare.”
If the request is approved, residents will find housing in one of Richmond’s available public housing sites or on the private market with a Section 8 voucher.
The housing authority already has talked to a nonprofit developer that is “extremely interested” in a renovation project like this, according to the city’s report.
Tim Jones, the housing authority’s executive director, said that putting up the money for the relocation without getting help from HUD would take just as long as asking for HUD’s help and that it threatened to worsen the public housing agency’s rating with HUD.
It also could jeopardize the city’s Section 8 voucher program. The city would have to give Hacienda residents vouchers to help them find housing in the private market. That would leave fewer vouchers for individuals and families who have been on the Section 8 waitlist for months, according to the city’s report.
The city still is leaving open the possibility that it goes it alone, but that still would take at least three months. It would take at least a month for a consultant to prepare the relocation plan and another month for the public to weigh in before the City Council could approve any sort of evacuation. Hacienda residents would then get 90-day notices telling them how to move out and get help with finding alternative housing.
The City Council also voted to explore turning over control of all of its public housing programs directly to the federal government.
Originally posted at The Center for Investigative Reporting.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.