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