Our investigation into public housing in Richmond, Calif., rolled out in a series of written stories, scores of photographs, multimedia, television, radio and even a spoken word poem.
That’s a lot of stuff. Let’s simplify. Here’s a quick look at six problems the Richmond Housing Authority faces.
1. People are scared.
It’s not just the residents of Richmond’s two largest housing projects. One paid security guard told us that she’s scared to do her patrols, too.
A security gate was broken for months. Security guards haven’t been checking in guests like they’re supposed to do, allowing anyone – including drug dealers – to walk in and out with impunity while the guards regularly stay glued to their cellphone screens.
2. Basic problems are taking a long time to get fixed – or aren’t being fixed at all.
Authority records show problem after problem being resolved in no time. But residents tell a different story on the ground.
One had raw sewage falling on him for a month from a leaky ceiling in his bathroom. Another says his heater has been broken for more than a year, forcing him to use his oven to stay warm in the cold winter months. One woman who lost her legs waited more than nine months for a simple safety bar so that she could use her bathtub. Residents said their repeated complaints went ignored.
3. The housing authority’s largest complex is uninhabitable, according to its own executive director.
But a long-term plan for Hacienda’s future is still months away. For now, residents continue to live in the poor conditions, though they say the housing agency is finally fixing their problems.
The elevators still are breaking down, leaving many seniors trapped on the top floors. Hacienda’s roof continues to leak, causing mold and stalactites to drip from the sixth-floor ceiling. Contractors have been hired to fix the roof since at least 2006 but haven’t been able to stop it from leaking. Cracks reveal themselves between the walkways and foundation. Nearly one-fifth of the units were infested with insects, according to the most recent inspection.
Executive Director Tim Jones at a City Council hearing last week conceded that the building should be torn down. He said he’ll meet with federal officials soon to ask permission to demolish or shut down the building.
4. The resident rights group is dysfunctional.
Residents are supposed to be represented by a seven-member housing advisory commission. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has said the group doesn’t know enough about housing policy and isn’t getting good info from the housing authority’s executive director.
After some commissioners talked with us about problems at the housing authority, four other members abruptly resigned. The chairman said he resigned because CIR went to a public meeting without notifying him or the executive director. Now, the commission meetings have been canceled altogether because there aren’t enough commissioners to hold a legal meeting.
5. The housing authority is facing a management crisis that has made it one of the most troubled housing agencies in the country.
HUD funds and oversees public housing agencies across the country. Its auditors have found mismanagement and financial abuses at the Richmond agency. Key staff have been found to be ineffective or unqualified. The executive director and financial manager got caught abusing the agency credit cards.
6. The housing authority’s financial problems also have put it in trouble.
The agency has run up a nearly $7 million debt. It’s paying another $2.2 million in fines for conflicts of interest and other contracting problems.
The management and financial problems have left the agency on the verge of being taken over by the federal government. It’s been on the short list of troubled agencies since 2009. Leaders such as the executive director and financial manager, who’d been the focus of HUD criticism, remain at the agency as it attempts to turn itself around. HUD says Richmond so far has met its deadlines for improvement, but key milestones are ahead in 2014.
The stories have begun to cause some change. Residents filled the City Council chambers last week to air their complaints, and they’re now working with a law firm to bring their complaints to the federal government.
The city this week began inspecting hundreds of public housing units for problems. It canceled its contract with the private security company in charge of its two largest complexes.
And the executive director sent an email to his staff urging them to treat residents well.