Should Hacienda residents sue the Richmond Housing Authority?

Sean Pyles

blogimage.jpgChange is finally coming to RHA buildings, but should they sue for damages incurred while they waited?

The Problem

Theresa Cooly has lived in the Richmond Housing Authority’s Hacienda complex for long enough to know that change doesn’t happen over night. That’s why, in December, Cooly decided to take change into her own hands and organize a lawsuit against the RHA. 

“We have been through so much stuff living here, we just wanted things to get better,” Cooly explains. “After all that attention in February we thought something would change, and when it didn’t we decided to see if we could get a lawyer involved.” Her claim? That the squalid conditions of Hacienda make the RHA legally liable for neglect and harm to the residents.

Cooly’s plans didn’t work out — not enough residents were willing to come forward publicly— and the claim crumbled. The quick rise and fall of her plans is not uncommon in such cases (lawsuits against housing authorities are notoriously difficult to pursue), but still, the question lingers: Do the residents of Hacienda have grounds for a lawsuit? And if so, what’s stopping them?

Over 330 days have passed since RHA Executive Director Tim Jones proclaimed that Hacienda is “uninhabitable” in response to a series of damning articles by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Intentionally or not, when Jones declared the building unfit for people to inhabit, he also acknowledged that the building under his management had breached what is known in legal jargon as the “Warranty of Habitability.”

In plain English, this means that the various problems plaguing the building are extreme enough to make the space legally unfit for human living. Conditions that push a building past the Warranty of Habitability include, according to California Civil Code, toxic mold, bug infestations, ceiling leaks, and plumbing issues, to name a few. Each one of these examples has been detailed by tenants of Hacienda, offering enough evidence to prove that the RHA violated civil code. 

After an initial push to move tenants out immediately, the RHA and the Richmond City Council decided to apply for funds from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to relocate Hacienda tenants and renovate or demolish the building. The decision came when the city and the housing agency realized that neither was in any fiscal state to cover the estimated costs of over $657,000 required to move out the tenants.

In the months since the building was declared uninhabitable, Hacienda’s tenants have stagnated in a building that violates the legal requirements for acceptable housing.


Why Not Sue?

Residents of Hacienda (and other RHA-operated buildings) have enough evidence to make a legal case, so what’s holding them back?

“People are afraid,” Cooly says with disappointment. “Most people living here are disabled or elderly, and they don’t want to get in trouble. They’ve heard of retaliation against people who speak up, and they don’t want that. They’re tired.”

Cooly tried to rally a group of disgruntled neighbors into joining her in pursuing multi-tenant litigation with the RHA to no avail. In the end, Cooly didn’t have enough for a case, and even if she had, the judicial steps required for such a case would have been difficult.

“There are so many judicial processes in place that make it difficult to sue a housing authority,” explains Marcia Rosen, Executive Director of the National Housing Law Project. “From filing the proper paper work, to gathering enough evidence, to finding a lawyer willing to take on a housing authority — it’s an arduous endeavor. Between people’s jobs and personal lives, many just don’t have the time to put into this.” 

But, with the proper team dedicated enough to pursue charges, a case is feasible. “If people feel that they have been retaliated against or wronged, there are certainly legal options for them,” explains Ophelia Basgal, HUD Regional Administrator. “If they can demonstrate that, this should be something that they should explore.” 

It’s no secret that Hacienda residents have enough evidence to pursue a legal case against the RHA, and Cooly’s isn’t the first attempt at a lawsuit. A federal suit was filed on behalf of residents by the firm Bryant & Brown after the initial shock at Hacienda’s conditions. At the time, Meredith Brown, an attorney on the case, told CIR “We need to make sure this thing gets resolved so when the limelight goes away, we don’t go in circles again.” 

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened. No legal ramifications have yet to hit the RHA as a result of the conditions in Hacienda.


What’s next?

Cooly may not have gotten her lawsuit, but change is coming to Hacienda. This past weekend Mayor Tom Butt announced in his “E-Forum” newsletter that the Demolition/Disposition  application for funds to renovate or demolish Hacienda was approved by HUD.

Next, an application for Tenant Protection Vouchers, a legalese for money to relocate Hacienda residents, needs  approval from HUD. Mayor Butt explained in the same “E-Forum” that he is working to expedite the process and have the funds secured by the end of the month. Over 11 months after the issue first made headlines, the RHA is finally close to fulfilling the promise they made improve Hacienda and move our tenants.  

For residents like Theresa Cooly, this progress may be too little too late. “I still plan on pursuing my rights, even if it’s just me,” she explains. Cooly may not have her fellow residents or history on her side, but at least she has evidence.

Photo courtesy of CIR

Showing 3 reactions

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  • Bridget Wilson-Gaines
    commented 2015-07-20 00:46:29 -0700
    I to live in the Hacienda senior apartments, they knew before I moved in I had kidney failure, asthma and I came from a domestic violets shelter “Stand”, they simply wanted to keep making MONEY since being here for TWO years I now have been on prednisone twice which has reduced my kidneys even further I stay sicker living here, the ironic thing is I need a one bedroom with the section 8 voucher and there are not many available. The vouchers are portable but I am a minister and need to be close enough to get to my church I don’t own a car. I feel very violated by The Richmond Housing Authority, for over a year I have been locked out the security building waited to be allowed in by persons coming out, or if the security guards are in the building they will let me in I’m still expected to pay rent but locked out the building. I am using I have black mold in my apartment and now I am forced to use my nebulizer daily. The City new better, the ironic thing is I am a State of California self insurance plans workers compensation Administrator, I used to deal with Risk losses and I know they have tried to change and cover up the atrocity of treating disabled low income people. They need to be sued, sincerely, Bridget Wilson Gaines
  • Charles Smith
    commented 2015-01-22 16:07:06 -0800
    I have to wonder why, with all the press coverage, that church groups and “progressives” didn’t demonstrate at the Hacienda public housing building on January 19, MLK Day of Service. The attitude of the Richmond politicians is nothing short of cowardly and some might say racist. On the other hand what about the African American ministers? Where are they? Is Richmond so corrupt that the lives of these residents don’t matter? Where is Rachel Madow, Bill Moyers, The Nation magazine, Mother Jones magazine, writer Steve Early, the Richmond Progressive Alliance? Shame on this City of Pride and Purpose.
  • Nina Smith
    commented 2015-01-22 16:00:21 -0800
    It is an overly optimistic statement to say that the RHA “is finally close to fulfilling the promise they made . . . to move our tenants.” As Tom Butt acknowledged in his e-forum article, just because the Demolition/Disposition application was approved by HUD doesn’t mean that there will be sufficient Tenant Protection Vouchers for all the tenants. HUD is underfunded and there are no guarantees. This issue deserves much more public attention.
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