Richmond: City struggling to find new homes for residents of troubled public housing project
By Karina Ioffee firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: 04/24/2015 01:59:06 PM PDT| Updated: about 3 hours ago
RICHMOND -- A year after the city voted to shutter a publicly run housing complex plagued by rodents, mold and structural problems, not a single tenant has been relocated, Richmond officials acknowledged this week.
In March 2014, the city ordered the Hacienda public housing project in central Richmond to be shut down, following revelations about the decrepit conditions for the mostly disabled and elderly residents, including a foundation that was separating from the walls and squatters camping on the premises.
In June, Richmond awarded a contract to a relocation company, agreeing to pay it $383,000 to prepare case files on all residents, find them suitable housing and help them move.
Almost a year later, none of the people living in 101 units have been relocated, although some have moved on their own. The only progress seems to be the 44 Section 8 federal housing vouchers distributed to residents in recent months.
They haven't been much help, according to residents.
"We've all been looking, but there's no place available," said J.W. Tillis, 62, who has lived at Hacienda for nine years.
City Manager Bill Lindsay said the relocation company, Autotemp, based in Mammoth Lakes, couldn't formally start work until relocation vouchers became available, which happened only earlier this year. He said the goal is to move out residents from the complex by Sept. 15.
"We knew the relocation was going to take awhile," Lindsay said. "Moving by choice is difficult enough, but moving because the building is going to get remodeled is even more challenging. People are being selective."
The city plans to spend an estimated $20 million to remodel the six-story building, including retrofitting the foundation, testing for mold and installing new exterior lighting, carpet and windows in all units.
But residents interviewed by this newspaper said they weren't being picky but simply had nowhere to go.
"They ain't giving no list," Tillis said, adding that calls to his Autotemp counselor have gone unanswered. "I would go if they just tell me where to go. I have to get on my bicycle and go around looking for a place that accepts Section 8."
Reached by phone, Autotemp President David Richman said he had been told to not speak to the media and deferred inquiries to the Richmond Housing Authority, which manages the Hacienda. Its director, Tim Jones, said residents have access to lists in the building's office and an Autotemp representative who was supposed to be on site throughout the day. But on a recent afternoon, the office was closed and no employees could be located.
Housing advocates say people relying on the federal government for housing face long waits and discrimination from landlords who often prefer to not rent their units to Section 8 recipients. California law does not ban property owners from discriminating against tenants with housing vouchers.
"We are seeing a terrible problem for our clients with Section 8 vouchers," said David Levin, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid.
"Landlords often say, 'No smoking. No pets. No Section 8.' The technical name is a 'housing choice voucher,' which is deceiving, because people really don't have much choice. The unfortunate result is they are being pushed to the bottom of the real estate market."
Verna Haas, executive director of Contra Costa Senior Legal Services, said the lack of housing is the single biggest issue facing Bay Area seniors.
"We have people who have been in their homes for 20 years and then get 60-day or 30-day notices," Haas said. "There are no protections for seniors in Contra Costa County. It's just heartbreaking."
But Jones said tenants have not yet been relocated because they don't want to leave the city or the neighborhood.
"There's no 'nowhere to go,'" Jones said. "People can go anywhere in the country. Some of the households have specific needs, like wheelchair access, which makes it more difficult, but the reason people haven't moved is because they are a little reluctant to get out of their comfort zone."
Some residents interviewed agreed that they would prefer to stay in the apartment complex, which is centrally located and within walking distance to BART, the post office, a pharmacy and grocery store.
"I love it here, but the people who run the place are not doing what they're supposed to," said Bernice Smith, 92, who has lived at the complex for 17 years. "The janitors don't clean too good, they don't trim the trees or take care of the property. That's why it has become what it has become."
The challenge of relocating 100-plus elderly and disabled people, most of whom lack their own transportation, was foreseen by both Lindsay and Mayor Tom Butt, who last year cautioned the city against shuttering the building.
At a City Council meeting in March 2014, Lindsay warned city leaders that their "good intentions, in the short term, may exacerbate the problem" and lead to unintended consequences. So did then-Councilman Butt, who called the plan to close Hacienda "irresponsible and immature," saying people who liked their housing would be forced to relocate and the city to spend money it did not have.
The Richmond Housing Authority has been plagued by a history of mismanagement, according to several audits by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including charging double for the same projects, paying for rehabilitation work not performed, improper procurement practices and steering contracts to family members.
But Butt also defended the agency, arguing HUD routinely failed to provide enough resources to maintain Hacienda and other federally funded properties in town. The cost of running Hacienda is $1.2 million a year, but the city receives only $500,000 from the federal government, according to Jones.
"The city and the housing authority are between a rock and hard place," Butt said this week. "There are not enough vacant apartments in Richmond to move existing tenants to, so they have to be dispersed. Nobody likes that, but it's unfair to blame the city or the (Richmond Housing Authority) or Tim Jones for the situation.".
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