Yellow journalist Amy Julia Harris is at it again, jamming the City of Richmond with fake news about the Richmond Housing Authority (RHA). See story below about a $650,000 settlement.
First, a civics lesson about the Richmond Housing Authority and housing authorities in general.
Housing authorities are chartered under state law as independent agencies intended to be completely funded by HUD. Their sole purpose is to direct HUD funding into subsidized affordable housing.
Richmond’s Housing Authority was chartered at the beginning of WWII to provide housing for war workers, paid for by the federal government. That worked well for decades, but in the last couple of decades in particular, Congress has consistently reduced funding, putting the whole system at great risk. The biggest cuts have been to funds intended to maintain existing housing stock. In fact, HUD concedes that maintenance is underfunded by over $26 billion.
Don’t take my word for it; see https://www.meadvilletribune.com/news/fix-for-public-housing-underfunding-raises-new-concerns/article_5016ad20-0eeb-11e9-99b7-9fd83a53232e.html or https://www.propublica.org/article/hud-oversight-failures-are-symptoms-of-deeper-dysfunction.
This is what happened to Hacienda. The maintenance requirements simply exceeded the funding available. It just got worse and worse. In my first month as mayor in 2015, I went to HUD in Washington, DC, with Mark DeSaulnier to secure enough Section 8 vouchers to relocate Hacienda tenants so the building could be vacated and closed. It took nearly a year, but Hacienda was eventually vacated and secured. All tenants were able to find new subsidized rentals. Meanwhile, the City is paying half a million dollars year to keep vandals out.
We are trying to work with Mercy Housing to have the building rehabilitated, but the necessary subsidies and Section 8 vouchers have not yet become available.
Meanwhile, the RHA was challenged with the same problem in its remaining properties. Two were transferred to private companies with access to tax credit funding for rehabilitation, the route that HUD is encouraging housing authorities to take. The City of Richmond was having was having to dip into the general fund for millions of dollars to keep the remaining properties afloat.
When some prior residents of Hacienda sued the City, we argued that the City should not be target because the RHA was the owner of Hacienda and an agency independent of the City of Richmond. Not so fast, said the Court, the City provided staff and services to RHA as well as sharing board members. The reason the City provided and shared staff and services was simply to save money no longer available to the cash-starved RHA. But no good deed goes unpunished, and the City got stuck with the responsibility.
Currently, the City of Richmond RHA is spending millions propping up the RHA while trying to transition its building operations to the private sector and its Section 8 program to the Contra Costa County Housing Authority. This is a big job and a full court press. I was scheduled to meet with HUD this week in Washington DC while at the US Conference of Mayors to help expedite some of the process, but HUD is closed due to the shutdown. Thank you, President Trump.
The real story here, and the one that Amy Julia Harris refuses to acknowledge, is that Congress and the president have left cities and housing authorities holding the bag while funding continues to drop. This is not a story about mismanagement; it is a story about a Congress and a president that have priorities other than providing affordable housing for those most in need.
The RHA now owes the City of Richmond General Fund some $12 million that we may never see, and it is growing by $2 million a year. That bad debt will affect everyone in Richmond, taking money from police, fire, recreation, libraries, streets and parks.
Public housing tenants get $650,000 settlement for squalid living conditions
By Amy Julia Harris / January 24, 2019
The Bay Area city of Richmond has agreed to pay $658,000 to nine elderly and disabled public housing tenants who for years lived in a notorious housing project overrun with roaches, mice, squatters and mold.
The proposed legal settlement was a welcome, though painful, vindication for the former residents of the Hacienda housing complex – among them a formerly homeless grandmother, a wheelchair-bound senior who had cycled in and out of hospitals, and a gentleman with a prosthetic leg.
For years, they had filed complaints, stormed City Council meetings and unsuccessfully pleaded with the Richmond Housing Authority to address the substandard living conditions in their units.
Geneva Eaton, 78, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the settlement was a long time coming. For years, she lived in an apartment swarming with mice and cockroaches; she was so traumatized by the vermin infestation that she slept with the lights on. She now lives in an apartment in Arizona, but said she still has nightmares about her time in Richmond.
“Sometimes I think about all the stuff I lived through and I get a cold chill on me,” Eaton said. “We lived in these horrible conditions, and the city tried to put it off on the tenants. We asked everyone for help. All they really had to do was clean that place up and they wouldn’t even do that.”
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting first exposed the squalid conditions at Hacienda, along with chronic mismanagement by the Richmond Housing Authority, in 2014.
Building inspections showed that half of Hacienda’s apartments were infested with roaches and almost a fifth of them had mold. Hacienda’s sixth floor sat vacant for years due to roof leaks so severe that stalactites grew from the overhead walkway and caused water to seep through the ceilings in units below.
After Reveal’s stories, the head of the housing authority admitted that the apartment complex was uninhabitable. But it took almost two years for the cash-strapped agency to secure funding and evacuate the last of the residents from the building.
The former residents sued the city and the Richmond Housing Authority in 2015, calling the city “one of the biggest slumlords in Contra Costa County.” The tenants claimed the city breached its contract and created a public nuisance by failing to provide safe and sanitary housing. They sought retroactive rent rebates, along with damages for emotional distress and personal injury.
The suit detailed a litany of problems in the complex: mold, vermin, faulty elevators and lax security – including a broken gate – that allowed drug dealers and prostitutes to “run amuck.”
“The people who live in the Hacienda were on the right side of justice, and the Housing Authority and city were not,” said Mister Phillips, one of the attorneys representing the tenants. “The city needs to know that they can’t treat people any old kind of way because they’re poor.”
David Newdorf, the attorney representing the city and Richmond Housing Authority, did not respond to calls and emails for comment. Tom Butt, the mayor of Richmond, did not respond to requests for comment.
In previous interviews with Reveal, the city blamed the poor conditions at Hacienda on a lack of staff and inadequate federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The proposed settlement money will be split among the nine former residents, after attorney’s fees. The residents could receive a check within the next several months, according to their attorneys.
“We are very happy for these clients, who have been through hell,” said Randy Strauss, one of the attorneys representing the former tenants. “They’re universally thrilled to be finally vindicated for standing up for their rights.”
The immediate future of the Hacienda building is unclear. The six-story complex, constructed in 1966, needs major repairs and upgrades. But redevelopment plans have stalled. The housing authority entered into an agreement with a nonprofit developer, Mercy Housing, to make an estimated $25 million in repairs, but those renovations have not yet begun.
While the building sits vacant, it has become a magnet for squatters and criminal activity. As a result, the housing authority is paying a security firm at least $40,000 a month to guard the empty building.
Amy Julia Harris can be reached at. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.