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Frustrated public housing residents give lawmakers an earful at meeting

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Richmond Housing - Lydia McGill
Lydia McGill cries as she tells her story at a meeting with City Council members at the Hacienda public housing complex in Richmond, Calif. Public housing residents spoke about squalid conditions and blatant disrespect from city housing authority staff.
Credit: Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

Richmond Housing - Lydia McGill

Richmond Housing - Lydia McGill

Lydia McGill cries as she tells her story at a meeting with City Council members at the Hacienda public housing complex in Richmond, Calif. Public housing residents spoke about squalid conditions and blatant disrespect from city housing authority staff.

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RICHMOND, Calif. – More than 70 residents living in Richmond public housing came out to unleash years of pent-up frustration over the squalid conditions and blatant disrespect they’ve endured from housing authority staff at a packed meeting tonight.

Janae Fletcher, 30, told five members of Richmond’s City Council who’d gathered at the Hacienda complex that she lived with rampant bedbugs and flooding in her apartment. When she went to the housing authority staff to get help, she was told that the bedbugs were her fault, she said.

“I was scratching so hard that I had holes in my skin,” Fletcher said. “And housing told me, ‘Maybe it’s the company you keep.’ It made me feel like I was nothing. I didn’t want to call maintenance because nobody’s going to show up, and they’re just going to make you feel like you’re trash that comes from off the streets.”

"This is Home" (Off/Page Project)

The Off/Page Project presents its latest short film, "This is Home," produced in conjunction with The Center for Investigative Reporting's new report on failures of Richmond, Calif.'s housing authority. Off/Page recruited three Richmond poets -- Deandre Evans, William Hartfield-Peoples and Donte Clark -- to work with CIR reporter Amy Julia Harris in the Hacienda and Nevin Plaza housing projects, interviewing sources and walking through dilapidated, mold-infested buildings during her investigation.

"This is Home" (Off/Page Project)

The Off/Page Project presents its latest short film, "This is Home," produced in conjunction with The Center for Investigative Reporting's new report on failures of Richmond, Calif.'s housing authority. Off/Page recruited three Richmond poets -- Deandre Evans, William Hartfield-Peoples and Donte Clark -- to work with CIR reporter Amy Julia Harris in the Hacienda and Nevin Plaza housing projects, interviewing sources and walking through dilapidated, mold-infested buildings during her investigation.

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For nearly two hours, scores of residents sounded off about mold problems, roof leaks, lax security and staff disrespect. Councilmen Nathaniel Bates and Corky Boozé, the organizers of the meeting, said residents needed to be able to speak up about their problems without the fear of retaliation.

“It’s been absolutely horrible to live here,” said resident Valerie Griffith. “The mold, the mildew, the infestations of rodents – it’s horrible. Not one single human being should be living here. This is an uninhabitable building.”

City officials pledged immediate action, saying that residents needed to be moved out of the building as soon as possible.

“This building should be bulldozed,” Councilman Jael Myrick said to loud cheers from the tenants. “This has to be immediate. We can’t wait. The stories we’re hearing are absolutely inexcusable and unacceptable. It should not have been allowed to persist for this long.”

The meeting at Hacienda follows weeks of upheaval at City Hall after The Center for Investigative Reporting exposed that the Richmond Housing Authority has been racked by chronic mismanagement, mounting debt and deplorable living conditions for residents. 

Richmond has been labeled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of the worst housing agencies in the country since 2009. Numerous audits, from both HUD and the agency’s own independent auditors, have identified breakdowns in how the housing authority tracks its money, keeps its books and manages its staff.

HUD has labeled the executive director ineffective and questioned the credentials of the finance manager. It’s rapped the City Council and advisory commission for being ill-informed.

Still, Richmond leaders said this week that they need an additional perspective on the agency. On Tuesday, the City Council voted to hire an independent investigator to audit the housing authority.

Richmond City Councilman Corky Booze
Richmond City Councilman Corky Boozé (left) calls out to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (not pictured) to look at the bedbug bites that one resident has had while living in Hacienda.
Credit: Lacy Atkins/San Francisco Chronicle

Richmond City Councilman Corky Booze

Richmond City Councilman Corky Booze

Richmond City Councilman Corky Boozé (left) calls out to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (not pictured) to look at the bedbug bites that one resident has had while living in Hacienda.

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“We know we have problems, and we want to ensure that everything possible is done,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “Our residents deserve more than outreach.”

City Manager Bill Lindsay estimated that an auditor could cost as much as $200,000 in both contract costs and staff time.

"I don't like to say this, but within the staff, we have a credibility problem," Lindsay said.

The housing authority said that it doesn’t know where the money for the auditor will come from but that the city may have to pay for it from its day-to-day budget.

Jackie Thompson, a public housing resident who sits on the housing authority’s tenant advisory commission, said another audit isn’t the answer.

“The problem is directing staff to be efficient and effective in what they do,” Thompson said. “You’re wasting money that can be used to fix the roaches.”

The housing authority is nearly $7 million in debt and has to repay more than $2.2 million for past contracting mistakes. Residents say they lived with mold, mice and insect infestations for months despite repeated complaints to the housing authority. Paid security guards shirked their duties, allowing squatters and drug dealers to enter Richmond’s two largest housing complexes.

Last month, the city hired a private contractor to inspect Richmond’s public housing units and survey tenants about their needs. The city manager fired the security firm and is exploring options for new guards. The executive director, Tim Jones, declared Hacienda, the city’s largest housing complex, “uninhabitable” and is weighing whether to move residents out of the decrepit high-rise. Meanwhile, residents continue to live there.

Jones also sent a note to his staff telling them to be courteous to residents.

The housing authority is working with HUD to overhaul its public housing program, and HUD officials said they’ve seen progress. However, the federal government has threatened to take over if Richmond’s problems don’t improve.

Bates, the councilman, said the real problem was leadership at the housing authority. Much of the anger during tonight’s meeting was pointed at Jones and the asset operations manager, Kathleen Jones. They are not related.

More than half of the residents raised their hands when the council members asked if they had been disrespected by Kathleen Jones.

“We need new management,” Bates said. “I want a vote of no confidence for Tim Jones. And Mrs. Kathleen Jones ought to go, too. You cut off the heads of those two snakes, and you’re going to find a lot of the employees coming forward and telling you what’s going on.”

CIR reached out to Kathleen Jones but did not hear back from her before publication.

Next week, the City Council will hold a special meeting to discuss issues with the housing authority and its staff. 

Neither City Manager Bill Lindsay nor Tim Jones attended tonight’s meeting. Lindsay, who oversees the executive director, has stood behind him, saying he has faith in Jones' ability to turn things around.

Jones has blamed the problems on HUD for slashing public housing budgets. 

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Christine Lee.